Art’s Anti-Innovator

Rosie Pentreath

To innovate is to ‘make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

I am as opposed to beginning with a dictionary definition as the next bohemian arts writer, but here I feel unable to compete with the Oxford’s authority. Innovation, then, arrises from a need for changes. New methods are used to meet new demands, and when a different device is called for, new ideas are tested for the ultimate goal of producing it. This is innovation.

Art may seem the very antithesis of innovation: the frivolous plaything of the creative-minded and unserious, which can be put to no real practical use. But of course any connoisseur in the study of (or even modest interest in) culture will know this to be the very opposite of what art is. Art’s very role is innovative. Art has always championed new methods; new ways of saying things in response to universal or select need. When art was beginning to mirror the reason and empiricism of the new technical age at the start of the nineteenth century, the Romantics sought chaos and the depiction of nature’s sublimity in their canvases; when portraits were becoming insincere and cold, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood introduced purely aesthetic values and a focus on classical beauty to art. These were movements that changed the established norm; movements that reacted against dogmatic paradigms and responded to the human need for a visual antidote (or in the case of music or fashion respectively, a sonic or sensual one).

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood sought classical beauty and innocence John William Waterhouse | Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood sought classical beauty and innocence – John William Waterhouse | Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

If you were to name the most innovative artist today you would probably answer ‘Damien Hirst’. Certainly, that was my initial thought. He was invited to design the Brit Award Statue this year and the 2012 exhibition of his work at the Tate pulled in a record 5.3 million visitors. He is probably the highest earning British artist (The Times Rich List figure of £235 million is said to be an understatement) and I think it is fair to say that he is admired as a confident maverick and innovator by those who do admire him. Many of his works, to me, are stunning and very moving. And I have always liked his ironic treatment of art.

Damien Hirst | Revelation (2007)

Damien Hirst | Revelation (2007)

But when I thought more about Hirst I changed my mind. Although it may be novel for an artist to have such wealth and fame, Hirst would be better described as an anti-innovater. You see, innovation by very definition strives to meet needs. The Romantics responded to a need to be reminded of the power of nature over stifling pollution. And whilst Hirst’s sharks intrigue us and we are hypnotised by his beautiful butterflies for a while, we are only momentarily dazzled. We do not need Hirst. In fact, the expensive price brackets indicate the very not needing Hirst. To buy even a souvenir plastic skull at £36,800 is to display excessive and utterly disposable (in the sense of being disposed with insanely) income. Instead of reacting against society as the Romantics did, Hirst is the very product of it. His pieces are stunning and can prompt reflection and philosophising, but his work is disappointingly inevitable. The fact that he is an architect who hires teams to produce the works is entirely anti-innovative itself; no striving with new methods there. Instead, a rather traditional notion of hiring a workforce to carryout one man’s vision.

The 21st century itself is an age of anti-innovation. We are saturated with products we do not need – products that we merely desire, or think we need after sitting surrounded by advertising. Perhaps the reason for my initial thought of Hirst as an appropriate subject of a feature on innovation is because of his status as a definitive – probably the definitive – 21st century artist. He will certainly be written in the art history books as having been one of the greatest innovators of his time.  But being remembered as the most prominent artist of a period doesn’t make that artist an innovator.

Today, our society is ordered through hyperlinks and behind firewalls. Our innovators are the ones that come rough and ready, and raw: quite the opposite to Hirst’s gleaming plastics and perfectly symmetrical diamond-encrusted skulls, we seek something more realistic. Our needs are met by Banksy climbing a ladder to make art on the side of the buildings our sterile offices reside in, or Matti Braun’s pathway across dark water upon logs through an exhibition of delicately beautiful silk screens . Perhaps they will not be such large contenders for the art history books, but true innovators and antidotes they undoubtedly are. In spite of them though, anti-innovation may be the most innovative paradigm that the 21st century ever produces. And Damien Hirst? The embodiment of that: art’s definitive anti-innovator.


Rosie is a writer, musician and artist, working and freelancing for BBC Music Magazine and Homes and Antiques Magazine, living between Bristol and London.

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