Damien Hirst: the art of decadence and death

Few artists attract the ire of contemporary critics as readily as Damien Hirst. After all, the general populace may not fully understand Pablo Picasso’s cubist paintings or Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain (a literal urinal turned on its side and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt), but they appreciate the works’ significance.

Hirst’s brand of art is morbid, confrontational, and even disgusting, making it difficult to admire on a purely aesthetic level. Add in accusations regarding the artist’s showmanship, and you’ll have an idea of why he is such a controversial figure.

In 1990, Hirst arrived on the British art scene with One Thousand Years. The piece featured a rotting cow head, maggots, and flies continually fried by a bug zapper –– not exactly subtle. This striking depiction of death catapulted Hirst to prominence and began his career-long obsession with animals incorporated into art.

The following year, Hirst debuted the work he is best known for: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. As viewers stopped beside a formaldehyde vitrine, they were once again forced to question their mortality. This time, death arrived in the form of a tiger shark floating eerily inside the glass case.

Hirst’s shark and its subsequent multi-million dollar sale divided public opinion. Was Hirst a sensationalist who exploited innocent animals and only cared about profit? Or was he the greatest innovator the art world had seen since Duchamp? No one had a definite answer, but this certainly didn’t affect Hirst.


He continued creating controversial pieces, including a diamond-encrusted skull, so-called “spot” paintings, and more works featuring rotting animals. And he continued making an immense amount of money.

In 2008, however, Hirst’s luck ran out. The global financial crisis halted growth in the art market, and Hirst, an artist keenly attuned to the demands of art collectors, suffered greatly.

Another aspect of this downward spiral was the seeming distance between artist and art: spot paintings, for example, were created by Hirst’s workshop and manufactured so rapidly they seemed to be as ubiquitous as cheap posters.

After 10 years without a major exhibition of new work, Hirst is attempting to regain the public’s affection. His new exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, is currently on display at the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Treasures, which is advertised as a collection of artefacts rescued from an ancient shipwreck, bears Hirst’s trademark extravagance. Several of the items allude to popular culture (one sculpture bears a striking resemblance to Mickey Mouse, another to Pharrell Williams), while others stun with their massive scale and ornate detail.

Hirst and François Pinault, the owner of Christie’s auction house, have poured millions into the show. Both hope that it will mark Hirst’s return to art world dominance, and it very well may.

The problem, however, is that Hirst the capitalist has overtaken Hirst the artist. From the beginning of his career, Hirst has emphasised shock value, and for a time, this approach worked. Although a stuffed tiger shark and piles of dead flies contrast with typical conceptions of art, there is no denying these works had a powerful impact. Hirst’s early pieces generated visceral reactions because of their shock value, but this value worked in service of a significant artistic concept.

Hirst’s recent art, on the other hand, is pure show. He has always lacked subtlety, but works such as the spot paintings and perhaps even Treasures have little artistry driving them. Instead, they seem to work in service of Hirst the brand, a money-making label thrown onto any old piece of art. Perhaps Treasures will launch Hirst’s career back to the top. But the perception of Hirst as a true artist is gone, and future success will always be tinged by hints of insincerity.

(The Saint, April 20, 2017)

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