Is Damien Hirst really that great?


Shark! Shark!
Shark! Shark!

With a career spanning over twenty years, Damien Hirst has successfully fashioned himself into a brand like few have managed before. As the current face of modern British art, Hirst has become a common household name – his accumulated wealth ostentatious as he now claims diamonds and gold as his choice of artistic materials. The main question we ask ourselves here is whether he deserves this; his work famously initiating controversy over the supposed lack of talent involved in creating it. His retrospective at the Tate Modern last year was the ideal place to form some sort of conclusion – is he worth all the fuss or is he merely condemning the future of art to laughable nonsense?

Right from the beginning, Hirst has never had an aversion to shock. He was famously awarded grade E in GCSE Art and Design and decided from the start that his work was not there to tick boxes. After being accepted into Goldsmith’s College of Art in 1986, Hirst joined forces with other young British artists who later became known as the YBAs. Their self-curated show ‘Freeze’ attracted art collectors from all over the country, but surprisingly Hirst’s own contributions were not overly successful, comprising of painted boxes stuck to the wall and the first of his spot paintings. These works were shown in the first room of his retrospective, for some viewers solidifying from the start their pre-conceived judgements that Hirst lacks technical talent, but also in a way demonstrating his humble beginnings, and really emphasising the transformative journey he took to get to where he is today.

The second room showed his 1990 piece ‘A Thousand Years’, his first arrangement in glass, which is undeniably one of the most bold and gruesome elements of the exhibition. In this Hirst plays with the idea of the life cycle; maggots are born in a white box, develop into flies, feed on a severed cow’s head on the floor and eventually die either naturally or by light trap, graphically enacting the processes of birth, death and decay.
In 1991, Hirst constructed arguably his most famous of all creations – ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. This shark is what he is known for; the ludicrous idea of suspending a huge, once incredibly dangerous marine animal in a solution of formaldehyde inside a glass box and calling it art seems almost anti-art, but when confronted with it face-to-face it appears almost beautiful. The shark is big enough to feel threatened by, yet it’s death is so visible by the cold discolouration and wrinkling of it’s skin. It shocks you into a realisation about the reality of death and the fragility of life, and through it Hirst almost usurps God and makes a mockery of religion – he has, in many ways, created a life through death.
The room ‘Pharmacy’ (1992) showed Hirst retreating to his other major influence of science and logic, where he illustrates their importance as a basis of respect and trust; perhaps in opposition to how the arts are perceived by some academics as futile. He challenges the view that art cannot be science through making science art; almost mocking this traditional system by highlighting his distrust in the true powers of medicine  – ‘You can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway.’
In the rooms that followed, it became clear that through the years Hirst shifts his primary attention to challenging religion rather than science. His 2007 work ‘Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven’ uses dead butterflies, arranged into patterns similar to that of stained glass windows in a church. He draws on the doubts, hopes and faith that religion is based on, almost portraying it as a beautiful lie. Hirst notes Philip Larkin as an influence for this room – memorably describing religion as ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die.” The hope of re-birth through God seems to be one that Hirst seeks to challenge – placing the physicality of death on the windows of the church, a mockery of faith in what he sees as dead.
The final room is a clear and conclusive indicator of Hirst’s established power and brand in the art world. ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ (2008) features a large gold cabinet filled with nearly 30,000 diamonds – swapping the clinical arrangement of medicines and pills in his earlier science-based work for something much more opulent. Hirst’s fame has allowed him to become a real-life King Midas; his journey ends in a life of riches and luxury.
So what has Damien Hirst turned into? Through looking back on his retrospective it is both surprising and obvious that Hirst is very intelligent. Even if people are not a fan of his ‘art’ they still feel the need to see it – he has crafted himself and his work into something that needs to be seen, a skill that made his retrospective so visited. I was sceptical and didn’t expect to be especially impressed by his retrospective, but I can honestly say that I have grown to love Hirst and what he stands for. He presents a deeply British sense of humour, and manages to challenge everything from the way we think to the way we live, what we’re putting our faith in and why we need that support.
‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ is merely a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, but perhaps his ability to frustrate critics and the public, and his power to make people think that the art world is dying is partially what he aims for. You either love him or you hate him, but it seems that what art lives for now is the experience, and Hirst shows us this in the most direct and blunt of all ways. He displays an accurate understanding and intelligence of the transience and fragility of life and this, I believe, is the reason behind his greatness. Whether or not he is worthy of his fortune is another question, but I can’t help but consider his fame and power reasonably well deserved.

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