Damien Hirst – genius or con artist? Or, a bit of both? Plenty of editorial inches have been filled with this argument. Yet, even his detractors admit he’s a marketing genius: he doesn’t sit back and wait for people to come and find his work. He makes his own market and controls it better than any dealer.
He’s often cited as the richest artist in the UK, even in the world, so he surely knows how to make and sell art better than anyone. But, today his website is full of branded products: such as necklaces engraved and etched with the Hirst logo. Has he just become a purveyor of luxury goods?
Right from the start (the Frieze show in 1988) he showed skill at more than just making art; he rolled up his sleeves, painted up a disused warehouse, arranged permissions with the council and even drove art-world bigwigs there. Many art world insiders can still cite that show today, it’s Hirst’s creation story. Is this marketing virtuosity part of his practice? Fans would say yes.
Hirst’s skill is to make the punter believe the hype –an act of faith, that surely is at the heart of much contemporary art? Are the branded sports shoes really any better than the non-branded ones? In the wider world, do we question this illusion?
What is the meaning of the spot paintings? No two dots are the same colour, the colours are ready mixed household gloss paint. They are simultaneously random in colour but neatly uniform in size. They recall science charts, and geometry, and colour theory. They have been accused of banality – what is their point? “Just a way of pinning down the joy of colour,” Hirst has said.
Colour is certainly one of his great talents: used in sploshy glorious effect in the spin paintings, and neatly in the assemblages of beautiful butterfly wings. Other works are far less ‘candy for the eyes’. The dead creatures in vitrines, shock us – the act of seeing a dead creature in a gallery. Are these simply memento moris, reminders of the transience of life?
PR stunts or genius?
Spot paintings – All eleven Gagosian galleries worldwide, from New York to Hong Kong, simultaneously exhibited his spot paintings in 2012 – from Hong Kong to Paris to Athens. If you visited all shows, and could prove it, you got a free spot painting.
The diamond-encrusted skull – entitled, For the Love of God (2007), this platinum cast of a human skull is covered in nearly 9,000 diamonds. It was said to have sold for £50 million, but it is not clear if Hirst himself, or associates, were the buyers. Given that the diamond industry itself is propped up by an elaborate marketing strategy, it is dubious what the actual worth of this piece is.
The pickled shark – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) – a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde as if swimming. Some critics hailed this as a work of genius, one of Hirst’s most important, others dismissed it as just a dead creature in a box, not art at all.