Some artists die penniless, unaware that their art will one day be lauded in hallowed institutions and revered by all. Van Gogh, as we all know, died pitifully broke and by all accounts a failure, his art the sole and modest means by which he could express his sorrow and escape from reality.
Damien Hirst, young British enfant terrible, is not one of these artists. Believing his art to be “so fucking brilliant,” as he said in an interview in 2007, Hirst is one of the richest and most sought-after artists alive. (To give you an idea of his cultural clout, he recently designed the kitschy album cover for Drake’s Certified Lover Boy). It is a pity, therefore, that Hirst’s art is comically bad; garish gimmicks disguise shoddy skill throughout his oeuvre. Hirst’s success demonstrates how elitist, capitalistic and incomprehensible the contemporary art world has become.
Hirst makes art about death, a common artistic subject which he completely butchers through his heavy-handed and pretentious portrayals. In interviews he makes vague comments about the “inescapability of mortality” and about how “life and death” is like the split between “black and white,” whatever that means. Yes, we all must confront death, but Hirst’s work never goes beyond this tired cliché to find nuance or individuality in the theme of death.
Instead, one gets the sense that Hirst never grew out of his edgy, creepy teenage phase, when he was inspired by gory images of diseased people he thought looked “delicious and desirable.” He transferred this grotesque imagery into his art, cutting sheep and cows in half to reveal their guts in all their glory, and preserving them in huge glass containers filled with formaldehyde. Sure, these works are eye-catching and evoke visceral disgust, but otherwise they have little meaning beyond a superficial shock factor Hirst seems to adore.
The only piece that hints at any kind of nuance is the one that won him the Turner Prize: a giant tiger shark suspended in Hirst’s typically minimalist vitrines that he titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992). The startling, cold blue of the formaldehyde works in this piece because the shark belongs in the ocean; it floats in ambiguity as Hirst finally manages to collapse the divide between life and death. The shark looks impossibly alive even as we know otherwise, and death, even as it confronts us, remains incomprehensible and unknowable.
Still, the piece seems to only succeed artistically by fluke; nothing in the corny visual lexicon of these preserved-animal pieces is challenged by Impossibility, and it feels as if Hirst just gotstruck lucky in his choice of animal (one imagines Hirst using a random-animal -generator). Like the cut-up cows and sheep, the imagery in Impossibility is still crude and thoughtlessly provocative, intended only to outrage with a lack of subtlety.
It’s more of the same with his use of readymades. Unable to paint anything more than dots on canvas (see his Spot paintings), Hirst deflectsed attention from his lack of skill by equivocating that paintings have too much “gravity” and are too “infinite,” instead using pre-existing readymades in minimalist presentations to mask his inabilities under a veneer of objectivism. It is so in- your- face that Hirst’s early work screams of a juvenile desperation to convince us that he was a real artist; he even admitted it when he said “I was desperate for things to have meaning. I had this massive fear that [my] art wasn’t serious enough.”
Moreover, even Hirst’s half-decent works barely scratch the surface of acceptability; one only needs to dig a little deeper to uncover other problematic issues with his art. The morals of a man willing to commission the killing of a threatened marine animal and cleave animals in two werewas always going to come into question. Hirst’s art is deeply unethical, recorded in the fact that over 900,000 animals have died in the creation of all his works.
Just look at In and Out of Love (1991/2012), an installation where Hirst released over a thousand live butterflies into a gallery in the Tate. In this piece alone nine thousand9000 butterflies were used, continually replaced because they couldn’t survive in the frigid environment of the museum. I guess Hirst loved death so much he wanted to become the Grim Reaper, shortening the lives of these beautiful animals from nine months to mere days. Not to mention the other butterflies that have died in the creation of his Kaleidoscope paintings, their deaths flaunted on canvas for no other reason than the creation of bad art.
Hirst doesn’t stop at harming animals—he wants to profit off other cultures and artists too. He has been accused of plagiarism time and time again, and his response is merely to brush it all off with a despicable, empty bravado, proclaiming, “all my ideas are stolen anyway.” In 2017, a piece in Hirst’s exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at the Venice Biennale was condemned for culturally appropriating a Yoruba sculpture from Nigeria that has yet to be repatriated. , but nNonetheless, Hirst still earned hundreds of millions from stolen ideas and work.
There’s more. Remember those spot paintings? Out of the 1400 paintings that Hirst has sold, only 25 were actually created with his own delicate hands. Instead, he uses assistants to create most of his work, before claiming all the credit—both in name and value. The whole process is disingenuous; Hirst hires someone to paint some dots on a canvas (and who knows how much he’ll pay them), before sticking his name on it to inflate its value and sell it off for profit.
If there’s anything going for him, it’s that Hirst is a shrewd businessman of the most cunning kind, playing to the whims and fancies of a contemporary art market that throws dollars at his feet. Hirst, operating in the high echelons of the elite art world today, doesn’t need to make good art. T because the dealers and collectors at the top care only about status, not merit.
After his first big break, Hirst began building up his socio-cultural capital ruthlessly, unashamed in his blatant capitalism. He is an artist for money’s sake—, if we can even call him an artist. Nowadays, Hirst seems more interested in cultivating a brand image for his work as a kind of luxury good and status symbol than actually achieving an artistic ideal. H; his more recent work lacks even the sloppy conceptual grounding that his early pieces had.
It isn’t as if he doesn’t have enough money—Hirst’s money-grabs come off as especially distasteful given the fact that he currently has $834 million dollars to his name. Apathetic to appealing to what he considers the hoi polloi, Hirst sidelines galleries and museums (the institutions that at least try to make art accessible to all) and sells his art directly to billionaire collectors, reinforcing the notion of visual art as insular and highbrow, completely inaccessible to anyone not at the top.
Damien Hirst is everything detestable about the art world. His success points to how corrupt and profiteering the art market has become. Undeniably, high art has existed as far back as we can remember, but at least the work artists used to create was indisputably skillful. Hirst’s work is a mirror to the depressing reality of today’s socio-cultural valuation of contemporary art. Hirst’s art may fail in inspiring the fear of death that he purports to aim towards, but his work echoes the grisly decay of what we have come to value as art, which is something truly spooky.