In 2008, Damien Hirst sold $198 million worth of artworks, setting a new record for a one-artist auction. However, with his immense success, he also gained an air of controversy surrounding his art. His works can be considered outrageously unique or perhaps, lacking the thought to be called art. However, it is important to acknowledge that art allows complete and utter freedom of expression. Nowadays, it is certain that anything and everything can spark up a heated discussion, full of controversy and hypocrisy and Hirst’s art is not an exception.
Hirst has been a rebellious individual since his early years: arrested on two occasions for shoplifting, he tried to free himself from the controlling grasp of his mother, who did not tolerate rebellion. Although Hirst failed his A-level art exam, he still managed to be admitted into Goldsmiths University, London after several attempts. His failure did not stop him in his creative path — perhaps, it was his rebellious nature that kept him going. During his studies, he worked at a local morgue — something that would vastly influence his creative decisions during his later life. And so, it began:
In 1991, Charles Saatchi, a businessman and art collector, offered to fund whatever work Hirst was planning on doing. This freedom of expression allowed Hirst to create anything he wanted, including a Natural History series of animals, preserved in formaldehyde. One of them was a Tiger Shark. The world raged over the simplicity of such installation: A Dead Shark Isn’t Art was an exhibition at the Stuckism International Gallery, Robert Hughes called it “the world’s most over-rated marine organism”. Nevertheless, Hirst also received some positive reviews,
Hirst’s later art has also been heavily criticised — one reason for this is the scandalous nature of his work. Sir Nicholas Serota commented, “It is very difficult to be an artist when there is huge public and media attention. Because Damien Hirst has been built up as a very important figure, there are plenty of sceptics ready to put the knife in.” Despite all that, his work remains one of the most expensive, produced by a living artist. Maybe, it is the dissonance between the nature of his work and the high prices that have sparked the debate on his work that sparked the controversy? Or was it the already-scandalous nature of his creations that ticked the others off?
Hirst is often stripped of the label artist by critics because he often chooses to employ his assistants to aid in the process (or even complete) most of his works; he reiterates by stating that art is in the concept, not the execution. For example, out of 1,500 of his spot paintings, Hirst painted only five. The rest was painted by his assistants. This is debatable, especially when considering great artists like Michelangelo, who took almost four years to paint the Sistine Chapel or even Malevich, who painted the Black Square himself. While some may hesitate to call Malevich an artist due to the simplicity of his work, no one will doubt themselves before labelling Michelangelo’s David as art. Therefore, can Hirst’s work be considered art?
On the one hand, yes, of course. Art allows infinite ways of one’s expression: whether through painting, sculpture, performance… It is a concept that is hard to perceive at first and even harder to explain. Considering this, it is certain that Hirst is an artist — his work conveys a deeper, underlying message that, although may seem lost within the brushstrokes of his assistants, has mesmerised some critics and buyers. His work is a new form of art on its own, perhaps one that we cannot understand, for now.
On the other, it is debatable whether animals immersed in formaldehyde are works of art. While their scandalous nature surely provokes a conversation about Hirst’s art, it also touches upon the general nature of art: can such seemingly meaningless work really be considered a creation worthy of the millions of dollars that have been spent to purchase it? Norman Tebbit commented on one of Hirst’s Natural History exhibitions: “Have they gone stark raving mad? The works of the ‘artist’ are lumps of dead animals. There are thousands of young artists who didn’t get a look in, presumably because their work was too attractive to sane people. Modern art experts never learn.”
Although we may be too quick to judge Hirst for the art he creates, there is no doubt that he has had a vast influence on the world of contemporary art. Perhaps, we have not yet learned to see beyond the aesthetic value of an artwork, at the underlying message. Not only does his abstract installations provide the viewer with food for thought, but also a completely different essence. His work is not the most affordable and considering this, it manifests the way nowadays, creation is not valued considering its aesthetic and professional value — realism has long been tarnished during the 20th century. Hirst’s work is proving this.
The traces of his minimalist style can be seen in the works of other artists: paintings and sculptures. One such artist is Oliver Shaw, whose work includes spots and incorporates some morbid themes into his art. Hints of Hirst’s interest in animals can also be seen in the installations Paola Pivi at Trussardi Foundation in Milano. A photographer that has a close link to the theme of death and animals is Maria Ionova-Gribina. There are countless examples of traces of Hirst showing up in the art of others and perhaps, this is why he can be called an artist — the inspiration he brought to others.
To conclude, it is certain that Hirst has had a huge influence on the world of contemporary art. This is noticeable in the critical outrage that follows him, as well as the work that is now being produced. Although his immense success in the world of art goes to show the value his work possesses, some do argue that his installations lack the creative aspect to be called art. His work has been named meaningless, bland and completely the opposite of art. Perhaps in fifty or sixty years, after the negative critics have settled, his work will finally begin to make sense and we will be able to fully appreciate the images of a dead shark immersed in formaldehyde.