September 2008


Amid the controversy surrounding the Sotheby’s auction, Robert Hughes explains why he has taken a stand against Damien Hirst’s ‘simple-minded’ works, and an art world where prices bear no relation to talent

Robert Hughes for The Guardian

Saturday September 13 2008


Damien Hirst at Sotheby's.  Photo by Felix Clay.

Damien Hirst at Sotheby's to promote his work. Photo by Felix Clay.


By now, with the enormous hype that has been spun around it, there probably isn’t an earthworm between John O’Groats and Land’s End that hasn’t heard about the auction of Damien Hirst’s work at Sotheby’s on Monday and Tuesday – the special character of the event being that the artist is offering the work directly for sale, not through a dealer. This, of course, is persiflage. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are now scarcely distinguishable from private dealers anyway: they in effect manage and represent living artists, and the Hirst auction is merely another step in cutting gallery dealers out of the loop.

If there is anything special about this event, it lies in the extreme disproportion between Hirst’s expected prices and his actual talent. Hirst is basically a pirate, and his skill is shown by the way in which he has managed to bluff so many art-related people, from museum personnel such as Tate’s Nicholas Serota to billionaires in the New York real-estate trade, into giving credence to his originality and the importance of his “ideas”. This skill at manipulation is his real success as an artist. He has manoeuvred himself into the sweet spot where wannabe collectors, no matter how dumb (indeed, the dumber the better), feel somehow ignorable without a Hirst or two.

Actually, the presence of a Hirst in a collection is a sure sign of dullness of taste. What serious person could want those collages of dead butterflies, which are nothing more than replays of Victorian decor? What is there to those empty spin paintings, enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs? Who can look for long at his silly sub-Bridget Riley spot paintings, or at the pointless imitations of drug bottles on pharmacy shelves? No wonder so many business big-shots go for Hirst: his work is both simple-minded and sensationalist, just the ticket for newbie collectors who are, to put it mildly, connoisseurship-challenged and resonance-free. Where you see Hirsts you will also see Jeff Koons’s balloons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stoned scribbles, Richard Prince’s feeble jokes and pin-ups of nurses and, inevitably, scads of really bad, really late Warhols. Such works of art are bound to hang out together, a uniform message from our fin-de-siècle decadence.

Hirst’s fatuous religious references don’t hurt either. “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, the sale is titled. One might as well be in Forest Lawn, contemplating a loved one – which, in effect, Hirst’s embalmed dumb friends are, bisected though they may be. Consider the Golden Calf in this auction, pickled, with a gold disc on its head and its hoofs made of real gold. For these bozos, gold is religion, Volpone-style. “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold! Open the shrine, that I may see my saint!”

His far-famed shark with its pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is “nature” for those who have no conception of nature, in whose life nature plays no real part except as a shallow emblem, a still from Jaws. It might have had a little more point if Hirst had caught it himself. But of course he didn’t and couldn’t; the job was done by a pro fisherman in Australia, and paid for by Charles Saatchi, that untiring patron of the briefly new.

The publicity over the shark created the illusion that danger had somehow been confronted by Hirst, and come swimming into the gallery, gnashing its incisors. Having caught a few large sharks myself off Sydney, Montauk and elsewhere, and seen quite a few more over a lifetime of recreational fishing, I am underwhelmed by the blither and rubbish churned out by critics, publicists and other art-world denizens about Hirst’s fish and the existential risks it allegedly symbolises.

For more of the article, go to The Guardian.

Missing Hero Monument, Gettysburg, PA

Missing Hero Monument, Gettysburg, PA.  Image by Bryan Hiott (2006).

The pedestal of the Missing Hero Monument, located in a parking lot adjacent to the Travelodge at 613 Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, PA, was poured in 1968 to honor all potential heros of American wars, who refused military service on the basis of pacifist philosophy.

In an effort to increase tourism revenue, the Missing Hero Association, which maintains the pedestal, recently voted to commission a bronze statue of a current pacifist to be erected on the site.  The statue will be cast in the likeness of one individual chosen through an open audition process (Oct. 15 – 31) that includes a YouTube video essay and phone interview.

Three finalists in the comptition will be invited to Gettysburg on on the 154th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address:  November 19, 2017.  There each will complete the final requirement of the selection process:  standing atop the pedestal to deliver a three-minute monologue outlining his/her belief in peace and the futility of war.  The length of the monologue corresponds to the length of the Gettysburg Address.  Finalists must arrange for their own travel, meals and accommodations.

Those interested in entering the competition should contact The Missing Hero Memorial Association by email:


Not long ago on the CBC Radio 3 podcast with Grant Lawrence, I heard Tennessee Twin performing a song called “Free To Do What?”   I’ll leave the biographical info. to Charles Spano below.  Let me just say for now that I was intrigued with Tennessee Twin’s determination to set themselves apart from punk rockers in Vancouver by incorporating unexpected older musical styles.  Those of us doing wet plate collodion photography – as opposed to digital or film – should be at home with that sort of reverse-rebellion.  We have been called the “antiquarian avant-garde.”


Tennessee Twin

Tennessee Twin


From All Music Guide

The Tennesse Twin play ballads, barnburners, and hillbilly social tunes in the old style of country & western music. Cindy Wolfe, founder of the Tennessee Twin, is the identical twin sister of acclaimed riot grrrl act Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe. Born in Memphis, Cindy Wolfe, who sings, plays mandolin, and is the songwriter for the Tennessee Twin, found inspiration from her Southern roots, and desired to perform in ways that stood out from her punk rock contemporaries. Wolfe began this effort by writing, directing, and staging puppet shows in Olympia, WA. But fearful of being pigeonholed as a puppeteer, Wolfe began to plot out the course of the country band that would become the Tennessee Twin and moved to Canada. In 1998, when Bratmobile came to Vancouver, Allison Wolfe convinced her sister to get her band started, and the Tennessee Twin were born. The band has played festival shows, including YoYo a GoGo and Ladyfest with fellow alt-country crooner Neko Case. Mint Records released the Tennessee Twin’s first single, “These Thoughts Are Occupied,” in 2001. The next year they finally released their debut album, Free to Do What?, and Wolfe starred in the film Low Self Esteem Girl.

— Charles Spano


On September 11, 2001, my wife and I were living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.  From our  balcony, we had a partial view of the World Trade Towers.  I took video footage of the towers before their catastrophic collapse as well as footage of the seemingly normal activity on the streets below in the aftermath.  In the days following 9/11, we went into Manhattan, where I filmed the spontaneous gatherings at Union Square as well as various other scenes that caught my attention.

On August 6, 2006, The New York Times ran a feature article by Joyce Walder on wet plate photographer John Coffer, entitled “Born 150 Years Too Late.”  Walder explored Coffer’s off the grid rural lifestyle rather than his photographic work.  In conjunction with the article, Fred Conrad conducted an audio interview of Coffer and spent some time learning the wet plate collodion process.  Conrad’s tintypes were part of a slideshow that accompanied the audio interview on the newspaper’s website.   


Audio: John Coffer Interview by Fred Conrad


Tintype by Fred Conrad (2006)

Tintype of John Coffer by Fred Conrad (2006)


Tintype of Coffer's cabin by Fred Conrad (2006)

Tintype of Coffer's Log Cabin by Fred Conrad (2006)

Billy McCune by Danny Lyon

Billy McCune by Danny Lyon



On October 1, 2007, an ex-convict named Billy McCune—one of the most important subjects in the history of documentary photography—died in a half-way house in Kansas City, Missouri. He was 79 years old.

McCune, who was mentally ill, was convicted of rape and sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1950. A song he wrote on death row caught the ear of the governor, who commuted his sentence to life in prison. It was there, four decades ago, that McCune met a young documentary photographer named Danny Lyon. Lyon had been granted unprecedented access to photograph inside the Texas prison system. He published his photos in the seminal 1971 book,Conversations With the Dead.

Over the course of the project, Danny Lyon got to know Billy McCune, who had also become an artist in the penitentiary. Lyon included so many of McCune’s drawings inConversations With the Dead that he subtitled the book“Photographs of Prison Life With the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune #12-20-54.”

While Lyon’s prison photos are today legendary, what’s not known is that he also made reel-to-reel audio recordings of his conversations with Billy McCune in prison. Never before heard, these tapes are an extraordinary artifact—providing a rare glimpse inside the Texas prisons of the 1960s, and documenting Lyon’s historic partnership with the late Billy McCune. Photographer Danny Lyon tells us the story.

Producer: Matt Ozug / Narrator: Danny Lyon / Executive Producer: David Isay / Production Assistant: Maisie Tivnan / Music: Nick Yulman / Special thanks to: Andy Lanset, Donna Galeno and the StoryCorps MobileBooth team, Kimberly Wells and the Ft Worth Public Library, and Aminur the Cabby / Funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting


Yes, this video is admittedly campy and slap stick; but I just find the whimsy of it funny. Superkunk portrays history the way John Waters might.

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