Damien Hirst: the world’s greatest (con) artist?


Damien Hirst is no longer the darling of the art world. More than any other artist today he divides opinion with a razor-sharp knife. “Polished shit” is how one critic, Brian Sewell, describes him; Will Brand, bemoans that “this is what the end looks like”. So reviled is he that his obituary has already been written in Christian Viveros-Faune’s  Damien Hirst: In Memoriam.

Yet, Hirst sells. He remains unquestionably popular. The bad boy image serves to enhance his work. Infamously his diamond encrusted skull, named For the Love of God after his mother’s exclamation on hearing the idea, was auctioned for the sum of £50 million. The problem many have with Hirst is that he more than sells – he sells out.

This is painfully obvious in his current exhibition at Tate Modern. Hirst repeats the same ideas time and time again. Animals in formaldehyde, cigarette butts and flies. Medicine cabinets, butterflies and, of course, spots. They become more than merely motifs – there are reported to be around 1,500 of his spot paintings across the globe.

Many of the works are repeated over a decade later. His first spot painting was as a student. Distantly related to today’s numerous shades geometrically arranged on a pristine white canvas, Hirst first painted on board using repeated colours with the paint freely running downward from each circle.

This free sense of artistic creation is absent from almost all of Hirst’s subsequent works. Barring a small collection of paintings shown in 2009 at the Wallace Collection, Hirst exclusively works in sculpture and collage. The theme of freedom and control is instead expressed by maggots eating away at a cow’s head in A Thousand Years – a work that Hirst described as being “the first time [he’d] ever made anything that had a life of its own…something [he] had no control over”.

Despite the repetition Hirst’s art is art. What makes it art, an application that many dispute, is that it provokes thought and reaction. Walking through the butterfly room of the exhibition gives the casual gallery visitor an experience like no other. Children shriek with glee as enormous, beautiful insects land on them.

But Hirst is careful that joy is not the prevailing mood. Discomfort confronts us moments later. A room full of surgical instruments glittering with torturous intent leads us to a room of mosaic butterflies. Life and death are stunningly paralleled. With wings ripped from bodies as if by a child the beauty, framed as stained glass, is pointedly from pain.

Hirst is lambasted for his blatant commercialism. Indeed, it is difficult not to furrow your eyebrows when hearing his arrogant words from the early 1990s that he “can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it”. But Hirst is not just a soulless manufacturer, one hopes.

He plays with the image of mocking the art world. Pieces from his 2008 auction at Sotheby’s are deliberately glitzy. Mocking glamour and luxury he takes his classics and makes them golden. Mimicking his 2002 work Lullaby, the Seasons, which features four seasoned cabinets of shelves of pills, he produced the ironically titled Judgement Day, a gold cabinet filled with manufactured diamonds. His ostentation is the point – poking fun both at us and himself.

Hirst divides opinion because he wants to. The entire value of his art is our shock. Whether we shudder at the hideousness of the prices it fetches or the literal grotesque of sharks gradually decaying in tanks – it is clear that Hirst has succeeded. Of his sharks he says that he wants them to be “big enough to frighten you, that you feel you’re in there with it, feel that it could eat you”. This is what his art does – it frightens us – and that is what makes it great.