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Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living": Nebulous yet still shocking 

Damien Hirst attracts comment just as the rotting cow's head in his vitrine A Thousand Years attracts flies. According to the artist, however, he is not to blame: "I just wanted to find out where the boundaries were. I've found out there aren't any. I wanted to be stopped but no one will stop me." He has a point. Through a mixture of timing, luck and manipulation — and a dose of talent too — Hirst finds himself working so far outside the usual parameters of art that criticism is redundant. He is both clever enough to have anticipated everything thrown at him and sassy enough to pretend he doesn't care. 

Hirst long ago ceased to be about art  and is now simply about money. Whatever he, or rather his cadre of 160 assistants, produces sells — regardless of quality. This reductio ad absurdum was evidenced earlier this year when the über-dealer Larry Gagosian devoted all 11 of his galleries worldwide to Hirst's spot paintings. Some 1,400 of these banal works have already been churned out, of which Hirst himself painted only five. They would seem therefore to have no more artistic or commercial merit than poster art but nevertheless the one thing that might stop him, the market, refuses to do so. 

As if to reinforce his iron-clad position Hirst has also been granted a retrospective at Tate Modern or, as the gallery delicately puts it, "a journey through two decades of Hirst's inventive practice". The exhibition is touted as one of the highlights of the Cultural Olympiad and is clearly designed to resuscitate memories of "Cool Britannia" among visitors. Usually the accolade of such a show amounts to an apotheosis but there is a danger for Hirst here — slim admittedly — that it might prove the opposite.

Hirst has been in the public eye for more than two decades and this is the first major survey of his output. More than 70 of his works are included, from the formaldehyde pieces that made his name through the spot and spin paintings to his oversize sculptures and diamond-encrusted skull. Together they show just how short-lived was his real relevance as an artist and by comparison, the long tail of aesthetic poverty and derivativeness represented by almost all his subsequent work. 

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