Is Damian Hirst consciously playing the world for fools?

Six days ago on April 4th, London’s Tate Modern inaugurated Damien Hirst’s mid-career retrospective. Art critic and former gallery chief, Julian Spalding was not allowed to enter the show as a few days before his book entitled, Con Art–Why you ought to sell your Damien Hirsts while you can hit the shelves. An article in The Independent newspaper by Spalding mentions how Hirst is not an artist and how his work is “worthless financially”. Moreover he goes back to the roots of where this whole “anything can be art” thing began and what it has gotten to today. In another article by Spalding he posses the fabulous and bewildering question that inspired this post: is Damian Hirst consciously playing the world for fools with his art?

At 46 years of age Hirst is the richest living British artist as in 2010 the Sunday Times Rich List listed him as being worth £215 million. According to a review of the Tate Modern show in The Telegraph by chief art critic Richard Dorment, “Hirst became a billionaire by cynically exploiting our collective greed and stupidity”. But beyond his ‘occupation’ Hirst is more of a marketing wizard, he is the head of an international brand. The proof is his 2009 show in the Wallace Collection in London where for the first time he exhibited several canvases painted by himself rather than his army of assistants. There might not be a single show by a well-known living artist that fetched so many negative reviews. A headline in the Guardian read, “He may have done them on his own, but these doomy, gloomy paintings look positively amateurish”.

Several years ago Hirst boldly stated in an interview that anyone could be Rembrandt. The peculiar thing is that according to him, “It can be learned. That’s the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings.” So why does he employ so many minions to do it all for him? He has time to call himself an artist yet no time to “practice” his craft. Although his over-the-top mass production of spot paintings has been widely criticized for lowering his prices in the last couple of years, his work still sells for massive sums. What do people see? “Art is a permanent revolution”, says artist Fernando Botero; as a result, a sudden change in taste is no surprise as everything in art is a trend. No matter how powerful a movement may be, there will always be another coup d’etat so to say. The art market is the only remaining market at a global level that is so unregulated. Nowadays young artists are the exploited stars in our capitalist society. Collectors don’t always purchase works just because of the art; they enjoy being socially engaged, meeting the artists at parties and making business deals for large purchases from the studios as an investment. However, as Spalding points out, people pay millions for the artistic content in works, but if the object being bought has none then what are you really getting? “You could argue that you are buying an investment. But that depends on people in the future valuing the artistic content even more than you do”, states Spalding.

The real dilemma with Hirst is that auction houses and buyers don’t dictate the market’s taste; branded galleries and artists do. Collectors purchase mainly branded artist names, they collect art as an investment and buy what doesn’t sell at auction to monopolize a certain artist’s market (such as the Mugrabi family with Andy Warhol). Hirst has been known to manipulate his own market to keep his prices up, such as in the case of the £50 million purchase of his diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God, by himself and a group of galleries since no one else was willing to buy it. As Andy Warhol once said, “good business is the best art”: a motto that seems to be the market’s philosophy.

In Hirst’s defense, he stated in an interview last week that, “People don’t like contemporary art but all art starts life as contemporary”. This is very true, however the issue isn’t so much his works as the fact that they are called art in the first place. They are attractive for their shock value and the mass media strategies that keep the Damien Hirst brand under the spotlight constantly. Either way, if he is in fact consciously playing us for fools with his art, he is doing a great job at it.

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