Cartrain vs Damien Hirst: The Pop Art War

One has a retrospective in possibly the biggest gallery in the world, for free. The other costs £14 and is at the Tate Modern
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One has a retrospective in possibly the biggest gallery in the world, for free. The other costs £14 and is at the Tate Modern

The battle still rages between David and Goliath and this summer, the anti has just been ratcheted-up a few more notches with both artists putting on their biggest exhibitions simultaneously. One has a retrospective in possibly the biggest gallery in the world, is fun, fluid, forward-thinking and free. The other costs £14 and is at the Tate Modern.

This ding-dong between Cartrain and Hirst all began when Hirst took offence to Cartrain (then aged 16), using his jewelled skull image in a print. Hirst bleated to the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) and demanded action be taken over the print. On advice from the gallery, Cartrain handed over the artworks and the £200 he had made. A year later, to even the score, Cartrain removed a packet of Faber Castell 1990 Mongol 482 series pencils from a Hirst installation on show at the Tate. He then designed fake police wanted posters (see above), saying the pencils would be sharpened if the DACS didn't return his money and artworks. The authorities took a dim view of this and Cartrain was arrested for a £500,000 art theft – possibly the biggest art theft in British history. After making an appointment to arrest him, the Metropolitan Police later dropped all charges. The pencils haven't been wasted, Cartrain now uses them to sign and number all his prints.

On advice from the gallery, Cartrain handed over the artworks and the £200 he had made. A year later, to even the score, Cartrain removed a packet of Faber Castell 1990 Mongol 482 series pencils from a Hirst installation on show at the Tate.

With the Olympics focusing attention on London, the art world needed a big summer attraction to dazzle the tourists and fleece them of their hard-earned. Instead of picking an artist limited to 14,000 spot paintings, someone fresh, innovative and challenging stepped up to the mark. Before the art world could say 'darling', and coinciding with the opening of the Hirst retrospective, overnight new artworks appeared all over London by the artist Cartrain. Using the top of bus shelters as display cabinets, Einstein-stenciled 12-inch records suddenly appeared. Cartrain-framed montages were glued to walls and his spray work, with his signature left-wing bias, appeared as if by magic. And all of this free and for everyone to see. What's more, it's interesting, exciting and well executed.

Meanwhile, back at the Tate Modern, many important people had sat around desks planning years in advance the greatest exhibition in the gallery's history. They wanted a show that would leave you in no doubt about what bad art looks like. So they designed one where you spend fourteen quid, queue to stand in a crowded gallery and view bland, factory-produced mediocrity. Job done! And what's more, you'd be left wondering why this crap wasn't on display in the hotel lobby which it's better suited for.

So, two British artists with major exhibitions this summer battling it out for the hearts and minds of art lovers. One is south side of the river in an old power station, the other all over London. One you have to book and pay for, the other is free. One artist is a middle-aged multi-millionaire, the other a well-respected twenty something with more street cred than money can buy. What does this say about art? Who says art is art? It's up to us to decide...

Damien Hirst: Tate Modern, 4 April to 9 September 2012. £14 entry.

Cartrain: Bus Shelters and Brick Walls (mainly in E1 and E2), from today until the council removes all traces. Entry free.

Cartrain of course has continued to use the jewelled skull motif in his works and has even placed a piece in the National Portrait gallery London for all to see.

Rowan also writes here at The Chairman of the Board

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