Is Damien Hirst Avoidable?

Art lovers visiting London during the summer for the Olympics must be licking their chops in anticipation of viewing some of the finest contemporary art on the planet during their down time between sporting events, or for some cling-ons, instead of the athletics. One stop on their list will be the Tate Modern on the River Thames' south bank. So what intriguing cross section of Britain's finest contemporary art has London's preeminent modern museum cooked up for visitors and locals alike?

Damien Hirst. And more Damien Hirst. Five months of Damien Hirst. The prime season from April to September no less, amply smothering the entire Olympic session in July plus the earliest arrivals and the latest stragglers.

hirst-tate1-450Damien Hirst Inside and Outside the Tate Modern (Apr-Sept 2012)

The scheduling of this mid-career review is hardly a coincidence coming from a businessman such as Hirst who previously rejected multiple requests. Hirst has stated many times that he feels the term "retrospective" implies past. He's not ready to feel irrelevant, but a city replete with record international crowds and money to burn must have been irresistable for the world's wealthiest living artist, he who equates art with currency and readily admits that one of his personal goals is to sell bad art for ridiculous sums and get away with it. Many say Hirst achieved that long ago and should now give it a rest, or better said, give us a rest.

First the details. Fourteen pounds to enter and enough press coverage pro and con to keep the turnstiles humming. The Tate Modern has borrowed a page from Hirst's repertoire and will surely turn a tidy profit to line their coffers. Selling a few plastic painted copies similar to Hirst's "For the Love of God" skull but without the encrusted diamonds for 36,800 pounds a pop won't hurt the Tate's bottom line either. Fitting since nothing represents Hirst better than money, copious quantities of money.

hirst-roundspot-2501 0f 1400 Spot PaintingsComing on the heels of two recent shows of Hirst paintings in London and the global Gagosian Spot tour, the Tate exhibition concentrates on Hirst's early production, deftly avoiding the repetitive later works and his recent attempts to actually paint something himself for the first time in years. Most of his iconic fabrications are represented: the embalmed sharks, the floating dead farm animals, the pill cabinets, the butterflies both dead and alive, the 50 million pound diamond-encrusted skull, the smelly ashtrays, the live insects gorging on a bull head, the massive sculptures with exposed entrails and of course the repetitive spot and spin paintings that never seem to go away.

Hirst's obsession with death and the perilous life cycle are amply demonstrated. Some of it works, some is laughably shallow and some is downright distorted. There's not much else to say since Hirst hasn't added anything fresh to his conceptual rambling in years.

Most inside and outside of the art world see Damien Hirst at the extremities of the talent scale, either a genius far ahead of his time who signalled the revelation of British art as a legitimate contemporary force . . . or an affront to our collective visual and intellectual senses.

UK critic Julian Spaulding, the author of many scathing reviews of Hirst's work, has already been banned from entering the Tate during the exhibition once it was reported that he planned to publicly skewer the Hirst show. Spaulding finally made it into the exhibition and did just that.

Renowned critic Robert Hughes railed against the validity of artists such as Warhol and Hirst for years.

Prominent NY-based critic Roberta Smith sent mixed messages and gave only tepid partial approval after viewing the global Hirst exhibitions at the Gagosian NY pit-stops.

Colin Gleadell takes a different tack, essentially admitting that you can't argue with the sales numbers regardless of whether you like or despise Hirst as a person or an artist.

The Telegraph's Richard Dormant is kindest of all with a favorable review of the Tate show, albeit with enough asterisks and flaw exposure to suggest that even Hirst's art-insider allies still aren't totally convinced but must work feverishly to maintain the value of Hirst's products to protect their investments and those of their clients.

hirstskull-190For the Love of GodIt is difficult to straddle the fence with someone so polarizing as Damien Hirst, but there are reasons to commend his career management just as there is ample evidence to marginalize the majority of his work as superficial, money-churning, mind-numbing drivel:

  • As an art student at Goldsmiths, Hirst organized a show featuring himself and the works of fellow students, recent grads and friends that what would form the core of the Young British Artists. "Freeze" and subsequent artist-driven collectives such as Modern Medicine, Gambler and the East Country Yard Show served as launch pads for many important careers including Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Gillian Wearing, Michael Landy, Anya Gallaccio, Sam Taylor Wood, Fiona Rae, Chris Ofili, Rachel Whiteread, Henry Bond, Liam Gillick and Mat Collishaw. The bold shows opened Britain's and the world's eyes to a radically different form of UK art. It was also their first attempt to show that artists would no longer sit waiting to be anointed by the art world machinery but would instead try to carve their own place in history. As naive as that sounds given the nature of the industry where gallerists, curators and critics tend to decide the pecking order, they did speed their ascent by demanding to be noticed. With abundant help of Charles Saatchi and others, of course.
  • Hirst has always believed that artists should make the most money from their art, not galleries, speculators and auction houses. Perhaps he was only forecasting a shift in preference, or as some say, that sanity would eventually prevail and his mega-million bubble would burst. His solution was to be overtly prolific from the start, hype himself incessantly via controversy and ride the wave of exposure to sell works at astronomical prices from the get go before people caught up with the hype, leaving others holding the bag to preoccupy themselves with the after market and long term value. Writer Julian Spaulding wants buyers to liquidate their Hirst holdings before it's too late. Hirst says to hang on, his works still hold value. White Cube and Gagosian's gallery directors have done their best to maintain the world's fascination with colored spots and animal carcasses. Hirst is winning, for now, although his auction prices and sell-through peaked in 2008. Even though his recent blue paintings were panned by almost every critic that saw the shows, they've sold well. Perhaps this is a reminder to Hirst. He still has some tread life. Give us something original, as awful as it may be, and we'll still buy it. Which brings us to the next point.
  • Damien Hirst's success shows that negative critiques can't slow demand once an artist becomes iconic, in fact if anything they often heighten demand by reviving the dialogue. If that sounds twisted, it probably is. New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz finds this very liberating. In a 2008 response to his selection as one of the art world's 100 most influential figures in the same year that Hirst was chosen Numero Uno, Saltz was pleased to discover that he has no moral or professional obligation to soften his critiques for fear of jeopardizing an artist's career. Fine for Jerry going forward, but what does that tell us about his previous writing? While he may feel liberated and can rightfully commend himself for being a true "artist's critic" who hits the streets and the back allies to look for fresh art where most of the rich and famous wouldn't dare venture, hopefully comments like this won't taint past critiques with the same pungent smells of pandering and cronyism that have infested the art industry for decades. While Hirst may not be reforming or deforming the market by himself, he certainly has raised questions, even amongst the critics themselves who are as deeply divided about his place in art history as the public.
  • Hirst somehow parlayed a dreadful "E" in A-level high school Art and mediocre performance at Goldsmiths into a lucrative career. Reminds me of one of the new fancy trends in education that states you shouldn't fail anyone for fear of dampening incentive. Sometimes poor grades DO act as motivation. Of course none of this made Hirst a better technical artist, but it forced him to invent a resourceful way to prove that he could succeed in the art world despite his limitations. Isn't that what education is really about? Grades become irrelevant, the goal is to develop people who can succeed. Let's be honest, the guy can't draw or paint to save his life. Neither seem to matter to many in contemporary art. Hirst is a loose cannon, a scrapper, somewhat boorish and childish. He looks, acts and speaks like a dock worker with none of the high art world's sophistication. Call him a hustler or a shyster, but who's laughing at whom? No, he doesn't live in a dingy artist's loft. He owns a castle. No, you'll no longer see Damien Hirst in a soup line or be able to buy him a dinner in exchange for a sketch. He owned a restaurant for a few years and has numerous investments outside of art. No, he doesn't master art dialogue. Hirst sounds naive when trying to explain his own art but he's still one of the best salespersons that have ever existed. None of this has anything to do with his artwork, but it does make it necessary to evaluate Hirst as an enterprise more than as an artist. In that context, he's far surpassed expectations.
  • Hirst defies two basic economic principles, Supply & Demand and Guns & Butter. Even cynics admit that the demand has been there, but rarely has a living artist been able to command such outrageous prices while his studios continue supplying an endless stream of similar copies. (Koons and Warhol are possible exceptions.) Likewise, even a major global recession didn't deter collectors from spending money frivolously on non-essential wall bling when economy-stimulating investments might be more socially appreciated than displaying work by a hot artist to their buddies in the one percent of one percent club. Hirst understands the human nature of the ultra-privileged. He slaps buyers in the face with their own vanity, belittles their investments by criticizing himself . . . and they still buy his work. Hirst wins.

hirstsharkHirst and his first pickled shark with a long and winding name

  • In a bold affront to the regular operations of the art world, Hirst bypassed his gallery representatives to present his own auction through Sothebys London in 2008. 111 million pounds of sales may still be a record for a one artist auction and even more stunning since it came just days before the inevitable market crash. While many less fortunate artists applauded his bravado for once again expressing his belief that the artist is the most important component of the equation, others questioned his lack of loyalty to those including Charles Saatchi who bought his early work and funded the early formaldehyde tombs. Jay Jopling of White Cube gave Hirst more prime gallery/fair exposure than he probably deserved and Larry Gagosian helped Hirst reach a global audience. All played major roles in pushing Hirst's works to their A-List buyers, sales that gave the artist relevance through cash rather than substance and allowed him to amass a fortune estimated at between 300 million and 600 million dollars. Even in success, Hirst can't stop himself from being polemic. Controversy breeds recognition. Recognition brings sales.
  • Then there's the actual work. As stated by Roberta Smith, some of Hirst's spot paintings actually work visually. But why contract for 1,400 of them when one solid show would surely have sufficed? There is aesthetic merit to some of the butterfly paintings even though the live butterfly displays are morbid when the poor little creatures start falling during exhibits. The large sculptures of skinless humans and painted pill cabinets can always be donated to medical faculties when the owners grow tired of looking at them. Or as noted by Richard Dormant, the embalmed animals and fish illicit a more profound understanding of the inevitability and nothingness of death that a presentation with less shock factor might never approach. Certainly they work much better than a black canvas with nothing but a white flat line on it, or a taped cardboard box, both of which I was told represented death by their respective artists. Dirty ashtrays? Meh, although they too are begging to die. Sometimes, found objects or contrived representations of found objects just don't work without some major artistic input. This despite what some in the contemporary art world wants us to accept: that art is anything and anything can be used to create art. Seems like such a naive principal to base a movement upon, especially for the youngest of art students who might not have yet grasped the caveats attached to that base premise. Or perhaps most of them have never visited a third world country and witnessed what they consider to be "artwork" polluting the streets with none of the fanfare nor value of the Hirst bull and insect piece. Hell, why fly when you can take a car tour through Rural America and spot Hirst-like knock-offs created by the world's most under-rated artist, Mother Nature. Don't believe me? Okay then :

Hirst-engorgedhead1-450Damien Hirst "art" on display until September at the Tate Modern

I almost forget. Hirst wouldn't consider anything caused or created by Mother Nature to be legitimate art. Not because it has no aesthetic merit, rather it has no financial value.

For better or worse, Damien Hirst is a lightning rod who represents some of the good that can be culled from the current art market but also sheds light on most of the bad. The show is probably worth a visit if you haven't witnessed Hirst products in person. I've seen Hirsts in various venues and feel safe concluding that neutral viewers might, just might, form a slightly more positive opinion of some of his work after experiencing them live. Most who already hate Hirst's work based on internet or magazine photos, or those who simply don't accept his core concepts enough to bother looking, will continue to dislike it whether they see this show or not.

I'll even go out on the limb and disagree with Julian Spaulding by saying that I think that Damien Hirst is an artist. At least he is in the context of contemporary art which includes plenty of work that is equally disgusting, vague or poorly conceived according to even the most supportive critics. Sure, there are dozens of fantastic current artists that stand above the pack, just like there have been in most eras. I don't believe Damien Hirst is one of them despite the prices his involvement commands.

Damien Hirst to contemporary art is like Paul McCartney to the Beatles. He is the David Beckham of various football teams or the JK Rowling of literature. Not the most talented but undoubtedly the most commercially successful. Whether that alone is sufficient to cement a favorable legacy is still debatable, but a legacy he will have.

That said, if someone can photograph her husband with a wool tight pulled around his entire body and claim that it represents marital suppression, or attach a few fruits and a cucumber to a mattress and say it represents a couple. . . . . aw what the hell. To each his own. As Jerry Saltz says, "we're all working together as the filter; all we can do is keep trying."

Meanwhile, I need to find someone to paint me a few hundred fluorescent triangles or mold me a couple of green Gumby muppets out of rotting cheese over which I can pour a bucket of my blood for that personal touch. I'll even pretend I'm young and thus relevant, provide fancy titles for the pieces and produce volumes of explanatory gibberish if only a gallery would be kind enough to promise an exhibition.

By: Artfronts Editorial

For sources and more reading, if you haven't already been saturated with Hirst hype at this stage in his career:

Richard Dormant Hirst Review of the Tate Modern April-Sept 2012 show for the Telegraph

Julian Spalding: Damien Hirsts are the sub-prime of the art world in the Independent

Con Art by Julian Spaulding in the Daily Mail: "No, it's not your fault you can't see the genius in Damien Hirst's work - There is None"

Damien Hirst interview in the Telegraph: 'Even Michelangelo had his critics'

How Damien Hirst tried to transform the art market in the Telegraph

Damien Hirst: A painter's progress

Jerry Saltz on his inclusion in Art Review's Power 100 List.

More Clear Views of the Artist we Love to Hate by Judith H. Dobrzynski

All images Copyrighted by their respective publications and displayed here for educational purposes only.