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LONDON, UK 15.07.2012Features

© Michael Birt / Contour by Getty Images

Swimming with Sharks

The modern tragedy that is Damien Hirst

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Michael Birt

WHEN THE much vaunted retrospective show of work by 47-year-old Damien Hirst opened at the Tate Modern for its five-month run [1] it was already a block-buster – even the press preview was overcrowded with international  correspondents – despite rumours that it was being staged to the chagrin of Tate director, Sir Nicolas Serota, and that the disruptive and complex installation had alienated rank and file Tate staff. It is a major achievement for Hirst and one he was yearning for – despite going on record (speaking to David Bowie) as saying disparagingly that: ‘museums are for dead people’.

In the run up to the show the media went into manic overdrive, especially TV, and especially Channel 4, who had fortuitously covered the [now] seminal Freeze DIY exhibition for an arts strand back in 1988. The meteoric rise of artist Hirst (there is no other word to describe it) was reviewed in depth, injected with numerous talking heads from Mat Collishaw to Ronnie Wood. Sarah Lucas also popped up in the ‘good ole boy’ network to offset any notion that Hirst was one hell of a lucky dude who has just happened to fluke the jackpot.In actual fact, the only truly lucky aspect of Damien’s career was the timing of his record-breaking sale at Sotheby’s in 2008, when he pre-empted the global banking meltdown by hours. This (a complete show, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, sold direct via auction) realised £111 million ($198 million) breaking the record for a single-artist event, as well as exceeding Hirst's previous personal best, netting £10.3 million for The Golden Calf.

A more sober look at Hirst’s career reveals that he is nothing if not dedicated to his work. After leaving the Jacob Kramer College in Leeds he diligently continued to make art, as well as labouring on a London building site, before finding sanctuary at Goldsmith’s College. With Carl Freedman and the late Angus Fairhurst, he put together a DIY show of college chums called Freeze, now one of those curious modern myths of artland. In fact, although working the hardest to make Freeze a success, Hirst was judged one of the weakest participants, something he is much amused by today.

As Hirst approaches 50, he is in an interesting place. Interviews reveal him as no fool, actually the reverse – a self-deprecating humour and Northern phlegm has grounded him of late – and experience has honed his live performance. Long gone are the embarrassing days of Fat Les, flashing and Groucho Club excess, where the newly minted artist stuck two ‘master of the universe’ fingers up to everyone outside his immediate circle. He now has convivial, stock answers for all questions regarding art, money, studio practise, death, beliefs and personal affluence. And Hirst is wealthy. He has entered the realms of the super rich where money has no real value because anything is affordable. Monetary value has, perforce, to be tagged to the income levels of ordinary people and so, when individual wealth passes a certain point, this principle ceases to have any real meaning. A number of things appear to have been critical in Hirst’s development as an artist. Anti-authoritarian from an early age, he was too young to participate in Punk but perfectly positioned to absorb its influences. Intelligent enough to realise his own shortcomings as a painter and harbouring serious doubts as to the validity of painting at all (‘it is impossible to be original’ – and later – ‘originality is not important’) attending Goldsmith’s legitimised the conceptual posture for him: ‘don’t borrow ideas – steal them’, and, ‘...meaning is in the mind of the viewer, not the object’. His detractors say that it is all too apparent where he stole his ideas from (for example, Joseph Cornell was making cabinets of bottled oddities back in 1942 entitled Pharmacy; Thomas Downing painted geometric spots in the early 1960’s[2]) but Damien’s response today is to note: ‘I live in this mad soup – my influences are going to be visible’.

But what makes Hirst important is not the quality of his art at all. For 99% of observers there will always be one or two works that redeem him, although there is no universal agreement as to which they are. Hirst’s significance is postulated by the irrational premium on his output (reminiscent of Tulip Mania in the 1630’s), his personal status as a ‘global brand’ (parallels include David Beckham, whose stature and wealth is out of all proportion to his job of kicking a ball around a square of grass) and that Hirst, himself, makes manifest a cultural imperative born of a distinct period in art history, as the 20th century came to a close. 

Hirst is a product of the electronic audio-visual age (Burroughs’ metallic cocaine be-bop); and his adopted proposition, that existing objects have the power to seduce and can have a cultural impact when juxtaposed, has proved correct. Given affirmation by Jeff Koons (ten years older and a major influence) who made Hirst realise he did not even have to alter an existing object to use it in his art, and that the hand of the artist is not necessary to realise a work, Hirst formulated a philosophy that neatly assuaged all his internal doubts.

Charles Saatchi had taught Hirst to ‘think big’. Damien now likens his creative process to that of an architect who might create a fantastic building but – of course – does not lay a single brick himself. ‘I want to do it as quickly as possible’, he has said, ‘and this requires other people to be involved’. As to the industrial production line, Hirst insists it is a ‘factory’ producing quality material, like ‘Aston Martin is a high-end factory product’, as opposed to one making ‘dog food’. And so Hirst employs a business manager in the person of genial Irish Catholic, Frank Dunphy. (This immediately brings to mind Salvador Dalí, another highly lucrative art brand, once superintended by Dalí’s own Anglo-Irish ‘business manager’, Captain J. Peter Moore). Dunphy consolidated ‘Brand Hirst’ when Charles Saatchi was persuaded to pay one million pounds for the outsize sculpture Hymn in 2000. At the time Damien described the price as ‘mental’. It was to be just a foretaste of what was to come.

The mature Hirst gives indications that, intellectually, he is troubled by the astronomical amounts of money his work has produced (he is way past the ‘laughing all the way to the bank’ retort controversial Britons traditionally use to repel their critics) and he has been assiduously spending on very creditable projects. His expanding art collection, aside from including his painter hero, Francis Bacon, features fellow YBAs on a generous scale. And, in 2005, he acquired crumbling Toddington Manor for £3,000,000 to house his growing collection and a museum of curiosities, Hirst’s other true passion. This quite fabulous Gothic folly, that he has said he intends to leave to the nation one day when the extensive (and costly) renovations are complete, will inevitably become a white elephant – with upkeep so expensive that no government body would weather the political fallout of committing tax-payers cash to maintain it. In this respect Hirst brings to mind another dreamer of an earlier age, William Beckford, once England’s ‘wealthiest son’, who almost bankrupted himself on Fonthill Abbey. But it is, nevertheless, an admirable and worthy project which Hirst talks about with genuine affection.
If Damien Hirst was a moron, he would be the happiest fellow on the planet. But he appears today as a considered and sober intellect. His Northern sensibility helps him readily identify the sycophants; the affluent clients concerned only with trophy acquisitions; the ‘ladies who lunch’ desperate to be part of ‘it’, and the sea of sharks desperate to trade and profit from a Hirst product. Privately, he must now despise these people. And he is right – behind his back they likely do think he is just a ‘Northern twat from Leeds’.

As Hirst sits on the waterline of his luxury villa in Mexico and contemplates life and death and art, it must have occurred to him he is never really going to be regarded as a great artist of his generation. He will – of course – always be recognised as a phenomenon, but that very exalted level of success is actually the albatross around his neck. At 47, the only direction left for Hirst to really go is down. But if there is one certainty in Damien Hirst’s life (aside from his family) it will be a return – sooner or later – to his Catholic faith. The clues are all in his work – and in his own statements, where optimism and ‘wonder’ (and a fear of death) are a recurring theme.


1. Damien Hirst. Tate Modern: 4 April - 9 September 2012

2. For a searingly detailed assessment of the extent of D.H. ‘influences’ see Charles Thomson’s apposite essay at 

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