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August 13 2012

Why Mo Farah stole the show from British artists

Damien Hirst's closing ceremony union flag was magnificent but empty and Martin Creed's bell-ringing at the start of the Games rang hollow compared with the depth of soul shown by athletes

The London Olympics began and ended with art. The morning of the first day started with people all over the nation ringing all kinds of bells to perform Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells. But the big art surprise was reserved for the closing ceremony: this mashup of great, bad and indifferent British pop music was set on a gigantic Damien Hirst painting of the British flag.

In retrospect, it was always a bit fishy that Britain's biggest modern artist seemed so invisible from these Olympics. It was never really likely that Hirst would let a modest fellow like Creed steal the show. And Hirst's outsized union flag in the Olympic arena unfurled his art at its best: a colossal pop icon.

On the other hand, it was in tune with a closing ceremony that was, however much the nation strains to celebrate it, a lot less interesting than the opening show. In contrast with Danny Boyle's imaginative history spectacular, this was a pop concert with very little to it. Hirst's great big daub fitted it well – magnificent but empty, a slather of patriotic baroque. (... although the Who were great.)

The truth is that art was a bit of eye-candy, or in Creed's case ear-candy, for these Olympic Games. It was inevitable that contemporary British art would be wheeled out as a national asset during this self-celebratory summer. And its strengths were on show: excelling at the pop statement, the public moment. Unfortunately its weaknesses were also apparent, when you compared Creed or Hirst with the athletes, the true artists of London 2012.

I don't care how many medals Britain got or any of the patriotic guff that will wash around for a few more weeks. I care about Mo Farah. It's sometimes said of people who are very good at something that they make it look easy. Farah is great because he makes it look difficult. Neither of his gold medals seemed inevitable. Seeing his first victory on television involved and moved me more than any sporting event ever has. It had what I want from a work of art. It touched on deep hopes and fears. It made you, looking at it, aware of the human condition in some deep, primal way.

This race – and other Olympic events too – taught me that sport can be profound.

By contrast, where is the profundity in Creed or Hirst? Where is the soul in modern British art? It's good for a laugh, a party, a bell-ringing breakfast. But where is that sense of mortal testing and absolute absorption we got from the athletic highlights of the 2012 Olympic Games?

Our culture should take a lead from athletics. The real lesson of these Olympics is that the best things in art and life are deadly serious. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 09 2012

Olympics in art: Susan Philipsz runs her own national anthem hum-athon

The Turner prize-winning artist simultaneously hums the anthems from Granada, Ethiopia, Russia, Bahrain, USA, GB, Nigeria and Jamaica

July 26 2012

Take a virtual tour of the Olympic Park

Fly through the Olympic Park and explore the main venues using our immersive photographic tour. Discover hidden photographs, galleries and videos by clicking on the venues within the aerial panorama

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