Damien Hirst – love him or hate him – is probably today’s wealthiest artist. Some say that he is a symbol of bad art and senseless consumption. To my mind, he has probably done more than any other single artist to mock the very art world itself, turn its pretentions to his own personal advantage and, through the success of his career, lampoon the culture of endless, pointless and unsustainable consumption.
Starting out as one of the now infamous YBA’s (Young British Artists), Hirst started to become well-off when he found that he could produce and sell in endless numbers paintings that were nothing more than a series of colored spots on canvas.
These paintings gave the first hint of Hirst’s skill at mocking the art world while still making money out of it. He titled the paintings LSD and made clear that he only ever painted five of them himself the rest being done by assistants, particularly Rachel Howard. “The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel” he famously said. Yet the collectors kept buying them and his assistants kept churning them out.
Sponsored by Charles Saatchi, Hirst went on to bigger things. He was claimed to have developed an obsession with death and started producing large works like his now famous dead shark in formaldehyde titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.
To me it seems less of an obsession with death but rather an incredible skill to create enough hype and outrage surrounding his work to enable him and his agents use the mechanisms of the art market to make a lot of money. Hirst developed this skill so well that he could produce anything and it would sell for large amounts in what had become an uncontrolled consumption mania. For instance, “Lullaby Spring”, a 3 metre (10 ft) wide steel cabinet with 6,136 pills sold for $19.2 million to the Emir of Qatar in 2007.
This approach culminated in his production of a diamond encrusted skull that he aptly titled “For The Love of God”. I can just hear him chuckle – “For the love of God, how much can I get them to part with for this do you think?” The answer was $100 million – though that price was paid by a consortium that included Hirst himself.
In one final ironic act in September 2008, Hirst mounted, through Sotheby’s, an auction of his own work, bypassing his agents. The auction was appropriately entitled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” (by which I assume he means the checks he was going to collect) and included one piece that could not have been a more in-your-face mockery of the worship of the false god of consumption than a dead calf with gold hooves in a gold and glass tank of formaldehyde. Titled “The Golden Calf”, the piece sold for $18.6 million.
If he could have orchestrated it himself, it would probably have been the finest work of art of his whole career. But he didn’t. It happened by chance. The week that Hirst raised $200 million from his solo auction, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the whole financial system came crashing down.
To my mind, Damien Hirst’s career epitomizes our culture of utter waste and pointless consumption. The world events surrounding his final auction were the perfect dénouement to illustrate the unsustainability of it all. Hirst is one of the cleverest artists to exploit our blind consumption culture all the way to the bank and, in my opinion, he has always done it consciously and with a mockery that was barely veiled.