Books: BritArt in a pretty pickle

Like their works, Damien Hirst and co have stopped moving. James Hall steps away from the flock; Sensation: young British artists from the Saatchi Collection by Norman Rosenthal et al, Thames & Hudson, pounds 29.95 I Want to Spend the Rest of my Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now by Damien Hirst, Booth-Clibborn Editions, pounds 59.95
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Cynical souls have accused the cash-strapped Royal Academy of grotesque opportunism in mounting, as its autumn exhibition, Sensation: young British artists from the Saatchi Collection. On 31 July, the outraged Academy came out with all guns blazing to reply that its programme "is driven by artistic concerns and has never been inherently profitable. With no Government subsidy, it has to rely on sponsorship. The suggestion ... that the Royal Academy was motivated to mount this exhibition by exploitative financial concerns is wholly wrong."

This farrago of non-sequiturs is remarkable. While denying that it ever mounts an exhibition to make a fast buck, the Academy clearly does not think it is taking a financial risk with Sensation. In fact, this exhibition may well be a landmark: the first time in history that a major art institution has put on a survey of modern British art in which the exhibits are not for sale, in the expectation that it will make a tidy and potentially life-saving profit. This has previously been the prerogative of foreign art in general, and the Impressionists in particular. Now it seems that Damien Hirst's dot-and-spin paintings have the same cachet as Monet's water-lilies (due at the Academy in 1999).

The Sensation catalogue is snazzily produced with five introductory essays by critics and academics. All are fairly readable and informative, but none makes a major contribution to what is undoubtedly an important subject. There is a palpable sense of exhaustion as the Academy's Norman Rosenthal and the Burlington Magazine's Richard Shone rehearse for the umpteenth time the irresistible rise of Young British Art from its beginnings at Goldsmith's College in the late 1980s to its apotheosis in what Rosenthal calls "this august [or should that be "bust"?] institution".

Rosenthal notes that 10 years is "a long time in history of any art movement" and stresses that "the blood must continue to flow". He concludes with a tired shake of the collecting box: "Contemporary art is a club well worth joining." I have a mental image of wizened old codgers slumped in leather armchairs, dialysis machines in the wings.

Shone makes the point that whereas Chelsea and Carnaby Street were the spiritual homes of many figurative artists in the 1960s, the "fragmented, despoiled, high-rise, war-scarred urban landscape of the East End and Docklands has made an immeasurable impact on the look of much recent art". This is certainly true. Most artists live, and most artist-run galleries are located, in east London. This is the backdrop to many of the photographs of the artists taken for Spit Fire (Thames & Hudson, pounds 19.95) by Johnnie Shand Kydd, a slick connoisseur of grimness.

Nonetheless, the dystopian vision of many young artists has also been heavily influenced by an older generation of figurative painters: the so-called School of London that includes Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, and the photo-artists Gilbert and George. Indeed, it was the heavy promotion of the School of London in the 1980s that paved the way for a younger generation equally obsessed with inner-city decadence and decay.

Saatchi has bought (and sold) work by both sets of artists. A showdown between the old and new Schools of London, and their assorted spin-doctors and apologists, would have made for a far more stimulating show.

Damien Hirst likes to be thought of as the heir to Francis Bacon, but he now seems to be moving into the orbit of Eamonn Andrews. Nine years after his first public exhibition, and at the ripe old age of 32, Hirst has decided to tell the world "This is My Life".

For the occasion, he has this massive picture-book-cum-catalogue-raisonee. I Want to Spend the Rest of my Life ... has been made with the help of Jonathan Barnbrook, a graphic designer and art director who has worked for the enfant terrible of advertising, Tony Kaye. It is so heavy it must be bullet-proof, and its 334 pages, each measuring one foot square, feature more than 700 images.

Most are reproductions of Hirst's oeuvre, ranging from Schwitters-style collages he made while a student at Goldsmith's, through to the recent meat pieces and spin-paintings. Every medicine cabinet and every painting is reproduced, and many of his vitrines and installations are pictured repeatedly.

These images are interspersed with photographs of operating theatres and hospitals, of the artist as a child, and of Hirst's son and partner. A deluge of aphorisms and pronouncements by Chairman Damien is superimposed over them. The more sensational press cuttings and cartoons are also included, and there is a portentous preface by Gordon Burn.

The book's major selling-point, and the reason for its high price, is various pop-up images (butterflies, meat-pieces) and interactive inserts. You can fix genitalia onto a "pickled" Hirst and his entourage, change the colours on a dot painting, and make the famous shark vanish.

The book has its felicities (the eggs impaled by needle and thread are nerve-jangling) but, all in all, it suffers from chronic visual and verbal elephantiasis. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to the recent R B Kitaj exhibition at the Tate, with its interminable parade of repetitive images and explanatory panels. This exhaustiveness is meant to reflect the "obsessional" nature of Hirst's art. But there simply isn't enough good material to fill it (and even Picasso, at a similar age, would have had trouble filling it).

The basic components of Hirst's art were established by 1992, the year in which the shark - his undisputed masterpiece - was shown at Saatchi's. His dot paintings and butterfly pieces were already on the go, and so were his grisly vitrines. Since then, he has made some good things - the pickled sheep, Away from the Flock (1994), is delightful - but these tend to be shufflings of the same pack rather than new departures.

If anything, Hirst's post-shark work has been getting less ambitious, and more prolix. His diversification into film - Hanging Around (1996) - was boorish waffle. "David Sylvester CBE", the art writer, was asked to interview Hirst for this book, but refused on the grounds that he was "appalled by [Hanging Around's] mediocrity, banality, self-indulgence and lack of self-criticism". That letter is paraphrased here but, for legal reasons, it is reproduced with the text blacked out. Could it be time for a sabbatical?