The Reputation of Damien Hirst

Bess Levin today finds

a most

peculiar editorial in the International Herald Tribune, on one of my favorite

subjects, the intersection of art and money. What’s interesting about it is

that it shows how far Damien Hirst come in the past ten years.

Back when he made his famous shark in formaldehyde, he was roundly criticized

in the popular press for the art he was making. Today, he’s roundly criticized

in the popular press of the money he’s making. Which is rare, and borderline

unprecedented, for an artist.

The shark, says the editorial, "is usually called a piece of conceptual

art" – the first sign that the editorialist doesn’t really know what

he or she is talking about, and could therefore be considered a reasonably good

proxy for the general public. There’s really nothing conceptual about the shark,

which relies very much on the physical and emotional experience involved in

viewing it.

We’re then told that Hirst "has gone from being an artist to being what

you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art". Explains

the anonymous editorialist: "No artist has managed the escalation of prices

for his own work quite as brilliantly as Hirst."

The irony here is that Hirst actually employs a full-time business manager,

Frank Dunphy, as well as relying on the services of two of

the savviest wheelers and dealers in the art world today, Jay Jopling

and Larry Gagosian. Hirst is very well represented

in terms of people managing the escalation of his prices; he hardly needs to

do it himself.

Nevertheless, the IHT tells us that this very escalation in prices "is

the real concept in his conceptualism". Now there have been artists in

the past, and even in the recent past, where the price of the work is an important

part of it. Jeff Koons, famously, priced his early work at

the same level as Anselm Kiefer, because he felt that otherwise

he wouldn’t be taken seriously. And admittedly there is something showmanlike

about asking $100 million for any artwork, especially one featuring millions

of dollars’ worth of diamonds. But most of what Hirst does these days is simply

very expensive, very labor-intensive art, using dozens of assistants working

daily on photorealist paintings or painstakingly attaching butterfly wings to


Still, Hirst has now clearly reached the point where he’s perceived,

rightly or wrongly, as a money-making machine first, and an artist second. Maybe

that’s because most of his work is in private collections, and precious little

of it is on show in public museums. When the shark arrives at the Met, then,

New Yorkers – by which I mean the kind of New Yorkers who don’t regularly

do the rounds of Chelsea galleries – will be able to physically interact

with real Hirst art, just as they’re presently being wowed by the Serras at

MoMA. It’ll be interesting to see whether that changes his reputation.

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