Hirst World Problems Come to the Tate Modern

This week the Tate Modern in London opens a Damien Hirst exhibit that it’s calling the “first substantial survey” of the British artist’s work in twenty years. So if you have a hankering to see a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde—that would be his curiously titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—or a human skull covered in 8,601 diamonds—the Tate is your place. And if you have  £36,800—that’s nearly $59,000–to spend on a plastic skull dripped with multi-color paint, don’t miss the gift shop on your way out. You can also pick up a Damien Hirst-ian set of plates for £10,000 ($16,000) or, if you’re feeling cheap, a scarf for a mere £125 (a steal at $200). 

Obviously, every museum pays for its exhibits selling the various gewgaws and knickknacks we can’t resist as we “exit through the gift shop”. Whether it’s $2 postcards, massive $100 coffee-table books or $25 umbrellas, we probably wouldn’t get some culturally significant art exhibits without the commerce that goes with them. But with Hirst, the prices of some of his Tate-sponsored tchotchkes—most of which, like that colorful skull, he never laid a hand on–can’t help putting his entire oeuvre into sharp relief. Like Mitt Romney’s campaign staffer’s “Etch-a-Sketch” comment, it smarts because it enforces an already existing narrative. Romney has no steadfast ideology; Hirst is all about the money.

That’s not to say Hirst isn’t an artist of note; whether you like him or not, he clearly is—just the fact of his warranting a “substantial survey” at the Tate proves that. And his provocative, oh-so-clever, shocking work certainly gets the art world talking, which is something the rare artist can claim. But it’s the prices Hirst’s pieces garner that may be most shocking of all. That diamond encrusted human skull sold for nearly £50 million in 2007 (upwards of $80 million). And in 2008, a sale of a number of Hirst works at Sotheby’s in London totaled over $198 million.  (This, occurred incidentally, at almost the exact same moment Lehman Brothers—and subsequently much of the financial system—was crashing and burning.) And all this for a 46-year-old artist who’s still working (despite that fact that Dead Sells Best), whose work hasn’t had to stand the test of time and who certainly isn’t making decorator-friendly paintings of people and trees.  At the Sotheby’s sale, someone ponied up £9.6 million for another “shark piece”. What kind of living room do you have that can accommodate a dead shark? (Not to mention: who wants to live with a dead shark?)

Nearly a hundred years after all the rules of “Art” were being broken by people like Marcel Duchamp repurposing a urinal as a sculpture, Hirst seems to be doing variations on that same theme. Put objects not considered “art”(say, cigarette butts—yes, he’s done this too) in an “art gallery”. Slap on an inexplicable and deep sounding title. Collect much, much more than $200; Hirst, it’s been well reported, is probably the richest living artist in the world. (His net worth has been estimated at about $300 million.)

Now, obviously, you don’t have to be the first to do something to be good at it, or be valued for doing it. But without the aesthetic pleasure one gets from a more formal, traditional art, isn’t Hirst’s work, possibly charitably, better classified as philosophy of art, rather than art itself? The overriding nature of his work lies in asking us to think about art. Rather than, well, actually like it. Yes, we might also ponder death, decay, the natural world, bugs, but there’s no way that while standing inside a life-sized, white mock-up of a pharmacy–colored bottles of faux unguents all lined up–you don’t ultimately think about the concept of the piece itself: Is this art? Or set design? I’ll ponder that for a few minutes before I get a coffee upstairs at the café… That’s certainly what I thought standing inside Hirst’s “Pharmacy” when I saw it at the Tate in 2002; it’s interesting, but is it moving? Does it touch you emotionally, at all, or merely engage your brain (or, if it’s a dead cow’s head covered in flies, your gag reflex) for a moment or two?

Maybe that doesn’t matter though. It apparently doesn’t  for a lot of very rich people; Hirst’s work keeps selling for these massive, somewhat obscene amounts of money. But does it sell for tons of money because it’s really good, or enriching or important or because, well, the last piece sold for a lot of money?

Is Hirst’s biggest art event sneakily going on right under our noses rather than before our gallery viewing eyes? Now that he is who he is, Hirst—who’s somehow convinced people to pay £2.95 million for glass cases of stuffed fish and fish skeletons—could literally put his name on anything–and charge anything for it. I can’t help thinking of George Carlin: “If you nail two things together that have never been nailed together before . . . some shmuck will buy it from you.” The admixture of Hirst’s garishness (diamonds and Swarovski crystals) and creepy imagery (skulls and sharks and body parts) and exorbitant prices has resulted—whether he planned it or not (and if he did, he really is a genius)–in an incredible art happening in and of itself. And it’s not the actual pieces, no matter how many millions of pounds they sell for. Damien Hirst is now, fully “Damien Hirst” and that’s the most valuable thing he’s created. But considering how hard I find his work to love or even relate to (what, exactly, does that shark have to do with our understanding of our mortality?) I can’t help wondering: is Hirst a great fine artist or a great flim-flam artist?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *