Grinning zany. No British artist in living memory has achieved the glaring notoriety of Damien Hirst. As a teen-ager his idea of a fun photo was posing next to the swollen head of a corpse in a morgue. In the photo he grins with crazy intensity, and ever since then his aim has been to dazzle with disgust. One imagines that he wanders the streets in an acid-green spotlight waving off paparazzi the way Orestes waved off flies. In fact, flies figure into several of Hirst’s pieces. One is an installation in which maggots are eating a skinned cow’s head. Another is a black disc mounted on the wall made of resin and squashed houseflies. The repellent is Hirst’s muse.
Although a sort-of sculptor, he works in all media now. One of his most prolific works, a canvas covered in dots of various colors, has the artistic value of a child’s polka-dot bedspread, and Hirst has sold millions of dollars of it, in all sizes. A not-so-limited print costs two thousand pounds. Over the past twenty years Hirst has ticked off all the boxes of careerism: gaudy tabloid fame, riches, and the enmity of snobs. Whatever it takes to be consigned to the Limbo of Insufferable Crassness after you die, he’s done it.
So much for the bad about him. The good consists of all the above minus the value judgments. Putting one over on art snobs makes you a cultural hero, especially if you’re a clever lad from Bristol schooled in Leeds. Surprisingly, Hirst hasn’t had a major London show until the current multi-room exhibit at the Tate Modern on the South Bank. It is swarmed with curious crowds. He’s the people’s artist, and they get a kick out of his dead sheep and cows suspended in formaldehyde (although there are murmurs of pity for the poor animals). One room is full of butterflies that hatch, live, and die on the premises. There are also giant canvases intricately patterned in mosaic from thousands of iridescent butterfly wings (one is entitled I Am Become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds – shades of J. Robert Oppenheimer when the first atomic bomb was tested). A print can be had in the Tate shop, sprinkled with diamond dust, for thirty thousand pounds, or in the form of dinnerware for six thousand pounds. No actual butterfly wings are on either.
Crowds and impresarios go together. No matter how serious you may be about art, who can pass up a great white shark suspended in a giant blue vitrine? The work’s extended title is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of the Living. As Hirst tells it, the idea was to scare people by placing them close enough to the beast that they feel in danger, just as they would swimming out at sea. Not that anyone is remotely scared of a stuffed shark, but it’s impressive as a specimen. Once he grabs on to a theme, Hirst runs with it. There is a cow in formaldehyde split in half so that you can walk between the bisected parts and view the animal’s innards (no thanks). In the last room stands the most effective of the formaldehyde pieces, a white dove suspended in a huge glass case, like the Holy Spirit descending through embalming fluid. Hirst is into holiness, which counterbalances his grisly morbidity, a modern marriage of heaven and hell.
Besides the black disc plastered with flies, Hirst’s vision of hell focuses on cigarette butts. Thousands have been neatly placed inside a mirrored case, each occupying a shiny niche like jewels at Tiffany’s; this work’s title is The Abyss. Heaven is represented by the butterfly pictures, or more jeeringly by a white marble angel whose intestines are exposed. Other themes that are carried out obsessively include pills in pharmacy cases. Once again there are thousands of them lined up in neat rows, and to make the mundane more artistic, none are actual drugs. They are hand-painted replicas of pharmaceuticals. I doubt that the artist actually painted them, any more than he collected the cigarette butts, but who knows? Celebrity doesn’t come without sacrifice.
Finally, if you are on the lookout for Hirst’s succes fou from 2007, the diamond-encrusted skull entitled For the Love of God, you will be disappointed. It was briefly on exhibit before being whisked away in June. The skull, fabricated in platinum and covered with 8,600 flawless diamonds, was a huge publicity coup but a shadowy financial venture. Hirst said that it cost 14 million pounds to make, and the asking price was 50 million pounds. After claiming that he had sold it to an anonymous consortium for cash, leaving no paper trail, Hirst backtracked and admitted that he had to partially buy back the sculpture himself. Others are more cynical. As an Insider article said, “Everyone in the art world knows Hirst hasn’t sold the skull. It’s clearly just an elaborate ruse to drum up publicity and rewrite the book value of all his other work.”
Now that anything can be called art, Hirst is taking to its logical conclusion a practice perfected by Andy Warhol five decades ago, churning out instantly recognizable art stuff for mass consumption with a deliberate deadpan air and a whiff of anomie. Derision is built into the scheme. Sputtering art critics once fumed over Dada and Dali. Warhol’s soup cans sold zero copies when first exhibited in Los Angeles, and his Brillo boxes earned a smirk on the CBS Evening News. The artist knew what he was doing nonetheless. Hirst upped the ante financially, and he shifted from Pop to conceptual art, a movement based on the theory that an idea about art is just as good as the work itself, in fact, is the work itself. Hence the extended hyperbolic titles of Hirst’s pieces; they don’t name the work, they tell you why it exists.
Besides running his fingers through pots of money, what will Hirst do next? He’s only forty-seven. The sheep in formaldehyde no longer shock, any more than Duchamp’s urinal signed R. Mutt. Flies are a nuisance to keep breeding, and it’s no fun to gull the public when all they do is turn around and adore you. Hirst’s fate has been to blend into the contemporary scene, where art is just another commodity on the unending shelf of consumer distractions. He helped make it that way, so he has no right to complain, for the love of God.