Signs, Not Wonders

A retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work shows his skill as an aesthetic showman—but not as an artist

Michael Prodger

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. 

Although the questions posed about life and death by his shark and bisected cow    and calf vitrines are nebulous they do represent a proper response to the subject. Mortality is a topic with such a deep artistic pedigree that to find a new way of treating it appropriate to the current age was a considerable feat. And the works themselves still provoke more profound reactions in the viewer than the simple frisson of shock. Perhaps too, unlike so much of the rest of Hirst’s output, they transmit the indefinable sense that they matter to the artist himself: they might be knowing but not entirely cynical.

With these pieces though he pickled his artistic soul too; all too few of his other works display the same integrity. Not only does he create very little of his art himself (“I don’t think the hand of the artist is important on any level, because you’re trying to communicate an idea”) but he is uncomfortably free in borrowing others’ ideas too (“You call it a tribute”). The spot paintings were pioneered by Thomas Downing in the 1960s; Joseph Cornell displayed pill bottles on shelves in 1943; John LeKay was making crystal-covered skulls in the early 1990s, and so on.

The accusations of plagiarism don’t appear to bother Hirst too much, even when they have led — as with Hymn, his giant anatomy figure based on a children’s toy — to an out of court settlement. Perhaps though, en masse, they will bother Tate visitors more. If the works there are neither his original ideas nor produced by his own hand, if there’s no aesthetic rationale behind them, and if they are not genuine expressions of parts of the artist’s personality, then their claims as significant works of art are very threadbare indeed. Hirst, for all his considerable skills as an entrepreneur and showman, might have proved himself too clever for his own good. 

Hirst also features in another Olympics-linked show, the V&A’s British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age — a walk-on part in the room devoted to the fashionable Notting Hill restaurant Pharmacy. It is an exhibition intended to show not just how radically designers have rethought the objects used in daily life — from telephones to computers — but how they have also changed our mental and built environments. 

It is a big exhibition that through some 350 objects also tells the story of postwar British change, indeed it is conceived in the spirit of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The real interest, however, is not in the obvious choices — a Mary Quant mini dress, a Dyson vacuum cleaner, a model of Concorde — but in the more unexpected areas. These include British expertise in such things as video game design and town planning. So Grand Theft Auto is here alongside designs for the utopias of Milton Keynes (no architect who worked on the original scheme was above the age of 40) and Harlow New Town. And even though the rush to modernity is the dominant theme the exhibition also examines the pervasiveness of older design traditions, from the country house style reworked by John Fowler to the clothes of Paul Smith.

The mood of the show is unashamedly celebratory and with good reason. The postwar era may have seen the end of both the empire and our manufacturing base but in the realm of creativity Britain has remained a global power, producing commercial designers of the likes of Jonathan Ive, James Dyson and, indeed, Damien Hirst.

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