No one commands higher prices than Damien Hirst, and nothing is more fashionable than to loathe him. Still, we can’t do without him. In his person and his work, Hirst embodies the current condition of the art market: aloof, reckless, profligate, creepy, fast, fat and out of control. He is to art what Dubai is to architecture and Michael Bay is to movies: the leading exponent of the current blockbuster style. No one else has been as good at giving material drama and visual form to the vast accumulations of wealth during the latest, rococo phase of capitalist accumulation. That makes him our canary in the mineshaft. Whether despicable or dumb, whatever he does is at least worth noticing.
This month, an exhibition of Hirst’s spot paintings opened at every outpost of the Gagosian Gallery empire the world over. It’s a terrific marketing trick, as is almost everything Hirst does. Anyone who visits all eleven galleries (spread among eight cities) will get a free print—and, in spite of myself, I’ve been wondering if I could swing a trip to Athens and Hong Kong next month. As an art exhibit, though, “The Complete Spot Paintings” offers a strange mix of commercial megalomania and aesthetic tedium.
Along with animal vitrines, butterfly paintings, spin paintings, and medicine cabinets, the spot paintings make up one of Hirst’s main product lines. They’re just what they sound like: spots of different colors and sizes arranged in neat grids or concentric circles on white canvases of varying dimensions. The paintings are nicely executed, come with a fine art historical pedigree, and are about as interesting as sod. Even so, the mood in the Gagosian is giddy; bright, easy and interchangeable, the spots give off a pleasant hum, like a tipsy crowd. They’re sort of like late Lichtenstein turned into wallpaper, or an especially ambitious line of bed sheets from IKEA. Beyond the fact that they’re worth millions of dollars, the only Hirstian touch is that most of them are named for the active ingredients in Class A drugs.
Even though he’s been doing these for years, it’s weird to see Hirst come out so flat. Although he has wrung more money and social prestige out of outré tchotchkes than anyone since Cellini, Hirst began his career with some real innovations. He made a name for himself by grafting a layer of Baroque ornament and goth iconography onto the sober bedrock of conceptual art. His first major work, A Thousand Years (1990), consisted of a large vitrine in which thousands of maggots fed on the flesh of a cow’s head, turned into flies, mated, then died in the fires of a bug zapper. All of Hirst’s major themes are already present in this closed loop of flesh and death, disgust and rebirth. The rest of his career has consisted of giving these totems of death a luxury finish before selling them at an immense mark-up.
Hirst’s main influence on this trajectory has always been Jeff Koons. Koons’s early works, like the bronze vacuum cleaners and suspended basketballs (the clear progenitor of Hirst’s vitrines), invested the problem of the commodity fetish with a patina of mystery. They made the ordinary seem uncanny. Koons has since parlayed this feat into a career of making pricey Valentine’s Day treats—balloon animals, puppies, and paper hearts—for Ukrainian oligarchs. Between them, Koons and Hirst have split the highest tranche of the art market into competing domains of love and death.
This still leaves the question of why Koons and Hirst enjoy such enduring public vogue. Back in 1957, Richard Hamilton made a list of the key attributes of Pop Art. It should be popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, young, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business. Hirst and his peers held on to the part about big business, while getting rid of the transient, low-cost and expendable. At its outset, Pop Art took inspiration from the democratic profligacy of postwar life, drawing on the graphic universe of advertising and product design. A generation later, Hirst and co. take their cues from the populist elitism of celebrity culture. They give collectors what they want: efficient merchandising, strong branding and industrial scale—qualities that no doubt remind them of their own entrepreneurial gifts. Beyond that, they give them speed. Koons and Hirst create objects which read as icons. Easily digestible and instantly legible, they are visual snacks. Liberated from the burdens of difficulty and the problems of embodiment, their work leaves its buyers free to indulge their taste for morbid titillation and sentimental self-congratulation without fear of censure or condescension.
Like the winking Tritons and wanking Venuses of Renaissance ornament, Hirst’s embalmed animals and diamond-studded skulls are windows on the fantasy life of power. Imagine the Emir of Qatar ogling the golden calf he allegedly owns in secret, or Miuccia Prada in her palazzo of pickled sheep. Imagine Charles Saatchi sitting like Charles Foster Kane in a Xanadu of butterfly wings and artfully taxidermied doves. The price of these pieces is integral to their public consequence; because of this, they are able to enter the culture like a radioactive dye. Hirst’s greatest moment may have come in 2008, when he staged a $200 million auction of his own work at Sotheby’s on the very day Lehman Brothers collapsed. The coincidence of the sale and the crash turned the start of global financial crisis into a lavishly decorated work of indoor street theater.
Hirst makes work that is tacky and glib; that doesn’t mean it’s empty. It can be dumb, but dumb isn’t always bad; it often indicates a willingness to say the obvious. In an arena as opaque and full of feebly disingenuous protest as the art world, dumb can be a virtue. Works like The Golden Calf, an embalmed calf outfitted with gilded horns and hooves and sporting a solid gold sun-disk, and For the Love of God, a platinum-dipped skull paved with £20 million in diamonds, bring a clarifying bluntness to the disjunction between price and value.
In its material expenditure and visual profligacy, Hirst’s work is a return to the Baroque. Looking at a survey of Hirst’s work is like strolling through collections of the Schloss Ambras, the castle in Innsbruck where the Habsburgs stored all their weird treasures: coral crucifixes and golden salt cellars, paintings of freaks, cripples and madmen, sculptures of skeletons wearing their rotting skin. This kind of collection was called a wunderkammer, or wonder-room. Two kinds of objects predominated: the memento mori or reminder of mortality, and the lusus naturae or joke of nature. The purpose of these collections was ostensibly pedagogical, but what they really did was exalt their owners’ fearlessness and mastery. This is the tradition Hirst’s practice comes out of, as distant from the strictures of high modernism as it is from the pieties of postmodernism. Perhaps by honoring power and reveling in cruelty it comes closer than either to the mood of our times.
Hirst has always benefited from the presumption that everything he did was ironic, but his work is really rooted in a kind of guileless belief disguised as cynicism. He was a rocker, not a mod. The Spot show is disappointing not because it is disingenuous, but because it’s tame. A few years ago, in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Olbrist, Hirst said he wanted to create a work of art that would kill you (think plutonium sculpture) or at the very least would punch you in the face. Now it looks like he’d settle for a kiss on the cheek.