When Art & Music Collide - Damien Hirst in Conversation with Pete Townshend

When Art & Music Collide - Damien Hirst in Conversation with Pete Townshend

Damien Hirst: Hi, Pete! Great to speak to you. I’m really excited to be part of the great work you’re doing with the Teenage Cancer Trust. Music and the images around it have always been important to me. Album covers, advertising and the Sex Pistols got me into art – what got you into art and into music?

Pete Townshend: It was what I wanted to do as a kid. When I was seven years old I moved from a dark time in my childhood into using fantasy as a way of feeling safe. I wrote stories and invented machines, which I drew. When I needed to draw people or familiar things, I just did it without thinking about it, and my drawing was technically very good. My father was a professional musician who was an adept “reader”: he could play almost anything put in front of him. He despaired of my inability to even begin to do the same, and steered me towards writing. Behind the scenes my writing included drawing. When I got to grammar school I started to paint, and although the teaching was old fashioned, I passed three exams with grade A’s: Painting, Technical Drawing and Metalwork. So, I was a maker of things as well as a dreamer. When I got to art school when I was sixteen I was already playing the guitar well, but the ground course conceived by Roy Ascott was so forward looking and exciting that it fit my creative method precisely. As a song writer I work alone, but in my projects at college I collaborated on some installations and that helped me when it came to working in a rock group.

DH I can’t imagine being creative with a team where you have to consider their creativity too. It is so hard to get things done but I think anything done well is art and loads of musicians go to art school. Graham (Coxon) from Blur was in the year below me at Goldsmiths making paintings. Why do you think there’s this big divide between art and music? Where the musicians fuck off out of the art world and into the world of music, why do you think it’s always been two worlds?

PT Is it possibly to do with whether a budding artist is happy to work entirely alone?When we are young so many years are spent refining our methods and our craft and trying things out. We tend as teenagers to turn to our peers for judgement, and they are probably the worst people to turn to. That’s why sport is such a celebrity-making machine at school. Good sports people gain influence. The other cachet is music. If you could play Buddy Holly songs at my school you became seen as cool. But you also got to operate socially among other cool musical people in various groups. This is not to say that working on art is always entirely isolated, but the word art suggests a magic or artifice… Music is more instant. If you are given a choice, it’s natural to stick with music.

I know you have a creative team, but do you allow them to truly collaborate on your work? If I had been in your support team and suggested shooting canvases into the sky and firing paint-missiles at them, would you have been diverted from your whirling target paintings? I suppose the question is, would it still be your work if you tried my idea? In music there are many drummers who feel they should get a piece of a song… I usually disagree, even if their work is exemplary. It is me who decides what the song is going to be. I finish it. It’s mine!

Pete Townshend with the Can’t Outrun The Truth vinyl. Image: © Pete Townshend

DH Yeah it’s a funny question that, it’s about boundaries I guess and everyone wants to be creative but few take the risks. Love your idea! I’d probably rather collaborate though and help you do it than steal your idea, I guess the easy answer is, it’s always my stuff. I don’t hire ideas people or creative people. I have a team but not a creative team. Really there’s only one creative person and that's me, and if I have assistants who have ideas like that, I usually encourage them to go off and do their own thing. I've had a few assistants who are now artists who I bought paintings from, and they have good careers now. I used to argue with one about how perfect the spot paintings needed to be. I wanted them less perfect. I have so many ideas I don’t really ever feel like I need any more. I get mainly two types of people who work for me, people who want to be assistants because they have tried art and don’t like the pressure or the uncertainty of that world and then decide they would rather work for someone else and get a regular wage, and the other kind who want to learn from me to go off and do their own thing. I like to encourage both.

"I get two types of people who work for me: people who want to be assistants because they have tried art and don’t like the pressure or the uncertainty of that world... and the other kind who want to learn from me to go off and do their own thing. I like to encourage both."
Damien Hirst

Like you, I’m a massive fan of Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake but I was into your stuff and the Beatles through my dad before I knew about British art. I think because of that upbringing, I hate waffle, I just love the idea that if something looks good it is good and in the same way that if it sounds good it is good. What do you think about rules? Are there any?

PT I’m afraid I love critical waffle and even deconstructivism because it depends on the use of my other creative love which is words…. waffle is easier to argue with, but what we know is that every person will like different things. I used to say the composer is king. Is that still true today? I meant human composer. I also meant human composer who relied on protection of copyright. Today that has almost completely gone. Do you ever listen to music while you work? Anything in particular?

DH Yeah, I never used to and then when I had assistants I used to let them choose the music to put on. And during Covid, I ended up painting totally on my own and I painted in silence for a while and that was good for the pandemic I think, I had to open my door and so I could hear all the river sounds but since then I’ve been choosing my own music and listening to Max Richter – an album called From Sleep, a smaller selection of a bigger album called Sleep, and the soundtrack to Black Hawk Down, and Leon Bridges. My son is 17 and doing punk music, so his stuff, and a Jamaican rapper called Vybz Kartel, and another called Popcaan.

When I look back at the 'Sensation' exhibition I was shocked to see how silent it was when we were taught at Goldsmiths that we could do anything, there are no boundaries, yet it’s silent like a mausoleum. What’s the greatest art you’ve ever come across?

PT The Who were in Pittsburgh in 1978 when one of the old metal refineries was taken over for an exhibition of the complete works of Willem de Kooning. That kind of decorative work had never really gripped me. But the exhibition included dozens of full-size draft works of his most famous super-large paintings. For every familiar painting, some so large they filled a room, there were many draft works. It was overwhelming, and only possible because of the vastness of the exhibition space. It was obvious that even de Kooning himself would never have seen his works collected like this. Some of the drafts were as good as, some better, than the final selection.

"I collect titles and have many and they wait around for sculptures and they are like poems when I put them together."
Damien Hirst

DH Funny you describe de Kooning paintings as decoration, a tutor at my art school in Leeds, at the Jacob Kramer College, looked at my paintings when I was on the foundation course there and said “There’s a lot of flower arranging going on here Damien, hahaha". And my mum was a florist at the time, and he continued and said, “They would make great curtain designs”. I was devastated by those words because I thought art had to be serious and important, but a few years later, I saw the Aztec turquoise skull in the British museum and thought "Wow!" There goes decoration as a powerful antidote against death, maybe the only thing humans can do when faced with death or loss. That’s what eventually gave me the idea to make the diamond skull.

PT I think what you were told at Goldsmith’s may not be entirely true. Yes, we can do anything, but we have to get the timing right! My wife Rachel went to your recent London retrospective exhibition and said that your half-shark in fluid was a poetic experience. (She loved the whole exhibition). When you are working on poetically beautiful works (and you have produced many) is there any element of associated words, or melody, even in the abstract, that is in your head when you are working?

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. © Damien Hirst.

DH I collect titles and have many and they wait around for sculptures and they are like poems when I put them together. I keep a long list of titles, like A Promise with a Catch, Life Without the Light that Shines, and The Paradox of Power. I love Larkin and Plath and that expression of angst. I think there’s a visual language that exists that all visual artists tap into and I’m looking for universal triggers. A lot of people think I make art that gives answers and it does but that’s more to do with viewers, I think. I create art that looks like answers but it’s actually questions, I’m always asking a question. Maybe the old Gaugin one, Where are we going? Where did we come from? Is there a reason? I think to make art you have to have hope and I can hear something melodic in my head and maybe painting is a way to make sense of that.

PT If I ever turn back to art I feel I will need a lot of space. I don’t get on very well with sketchbooks. Do you? I suppose for me it reminds me of being a kid and a sketchbook was all I had.

DH Yeah, you should, I can imagine if you painted it would be big works. I like using scale to make art that you can’t ignore. Like Brian Clarke’s paintings and de Kooning who you mentioned, it’s funny you say that because I was thinking about that when you were talking about Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton as I think one of the reasons why Andy Warhol is so massive in art now and they really were creating powerful pop art years before him, was scale. I think if what you’re interested in is getting peoples attention and laying eggs in their brains you need to be careful of sketchbooks. Although I do like the way you can explore huge and difficult or expensive ideas with just pencil and paper.

"I appreciate not only scale, but the importance of the artist’s studio."
Pete Townshend

PT I appreciate not only scale, but the importance of the artist’s studio. Real estate is so expensive in cities, but even for someone like Brian Clarke (who we both adore) could never manage to produce his stained-glass masterpieces without plenty of studio space, and possibly space in different countries around the world. How important is having very large well-lit studio spaces for what you do?

DH I have a studio in Hammersmith with big windows on three sides and it’s amazing having great light. It’s not necessity for painting but it makes it a lot easier and it’s good for the soul, I paint all hours and at all times of the day, I’m painting the view of the river out of my window and everything is changing so much and so often that the paintings end up being collections of many many small moments like high and low tides. Since lockdown I really love just painting on my own, the audience comes later.

PT I speak often about the mechanism of congregation in music, how songs and symphonies we have listened to alone at home take on a new function when heard at a concert or festival. Suddenly there is a level of sharing and unity of motive and hope that kicks in. In an art exhibition the silence you speak of demonstrates how alone we are when we are confronted by great art. If someone next to you started twittering away, or playing music on their phone, it would ruin the poignancy of the moment. Roy Ascott calls it synthesised creativity or synthesised poetry. The viewer brings their own creativity to bear on the work.

DH Yeah like in conceptual art, the art exists and grows in the mind of the viewer…

PT Art for me was exactly like music. It fell under my fingers. I could just do it. I couldn’t accurately kick a football, but I could draw a cat and play an E chord. At art college in 1961 I discovered Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, Jasper Johns and so on. That expression of vitality and vibrancy, bringing together the street, the soul and the paintbrush, helped me realise that “Pop” was the most important word I could ever try to use…much more important than “Rock ’n’ Roll”. 

The London Sales

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