Damien Hirst – A Creative Genius or purveyor of con-art?

Some years ago, I was skimming trough an art album with Picasso’s work and I came across the drawings of his famous bulls.

Some years ago, I was skimming trough an art album with Picasso’s work and I came across the drawings of his famous bulls. They seemed to me more like a quick sketch or a kid’s doodle, as they consisted of very few, simple lines that formed the silhouette of the animal. I was then convinced that I could draw the same picture with my eyes closed. My mother, an artist herself, challenged me: ‘Well, do it then.’

Those words came back to my mind when I was reading an article by conservative art critic, Julian Spalding that mercilessly condemned Damien Hirst’s art as ‘worthless’. In his tirade, Spalding says that our appreciation of art such as Rembrandt’s derives from the fact that we know we can’t make it ourselves. Whereas, he adds, Hirst’s art is entirely generated by the team that works for him, and that means, ‘He’s made nothing’.

This brave statement spurred a lot of controversy and created a miniature battle between the adherents of conceptual art and those sceptics who, just as Spalding, believe it is ‘con-art’ as opposed to a ‘con-ceptual’ art. It is somewhat fair to assign the success of one of the richest artists alive to his experience with the art market and business sense rather than his creative genius (as most critics, who don’t want to take a side on this argument have done). However, the ideas in Spalding’s book, ‘Con Art – Why you ought to sell your Damien Hirsts while you can’, go a bit too far in ignoring important genres and forms of expression in art history. 

I suppose, in his book, Spalding expands on his opinion backing it up with alienated arguments like the ones in his article. In other words: if you see something in a gallery or a museum that you are able to create on your own or find people to create it for you, then it is not art.  Then why has no one else done it? Why did Hirst come up with the idea of putting a shark in a tank of formaldehyde before anyone else? Why is he so prominent and why do his works provoke so much hype and mixed, but always strong emotions, if anyone could do what he does?

In a film made before the opening of Damien Hirst’s retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern, one of his friends said something, which explains why Hirst’s shark is worth a fortune, unlike every other shark that you could find in a natural history museum. ‘It is an amazing thing to do – to take a shark and put it in an artistic environment,’ Hirst’s friend says, ‘you wouldn’t consider it [as a work of art] unless you have been asked to consider it.’ Namely that’s where Hirst’s talent lays – no matter how bizarre his ideas might seem to some, he thought of creating them; he had the guts to put them in a gallery, find an internal meaning in the objects he uses and try to connect with his audience through them, epitomizing them as contemporary art.

In his piece for the Mail Online, Spalding also attacks the artist by saying he doesn’t deserve a place at the Tate Modern. Well, I believe there is a reason why Hirst dominates the contemporary art scene and why there are thousands of people waiting at the doors of the Tate, to get a glimpse of a shark in a tank and a cow and her calf cut in halves.  Yet, I do not think that reason is his business strategy or ‘con-plan’, nor his bank account. 

I spared £14 to go and see for myself if Hirst’s art really is as ridiculously worthless as Spalding believes. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel deceived, and despite my student budget I would probably go and see the exhibition again. Damien Hirst is simply a damn good artist who understands how to influence people’s minds by making big statements with his art. He picks the most powerful existential matters that any type of art could touch and throws them in your face with an overwhelming power that is hard to describe. It just has to be experienced. 

I certainly did not struggle finding the genius in his works. In no way did the fact that he has a team helping him realise his ideas diminish the power with which those works communicated with me and, I am sure, most of the viewers felt the same way. You don’t have to be extremely insightful to understand the meaning of Hirst’s works. He has taken care of that with the admirable selection of titles for his works. The cow and calf cut in halves carries the name ‘Mother and Child Divided’ which makes a biblical reference along with the ‘The Anatomy of an Angel’. And the shark owes half of its fame to its name ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living’ as it is key to understand what the artist has had in mind.

Hirst holds the essence of contemporary conceptual art and one cannot simply disregard such an influential movement and artist just because they might feel intimidated by them. Most of all, I find it disturbing how much Spalding’s article is focused on the business side of art. I don’t have a clue how the art market works, so I can’t say whether Hirst’s art is going to lose monetary value or not. But in my mind, it will never lose the artistic and emotional impact it has. Every one of Hirst’s works has a great concept and impeccable execution that provokes thoughts that we don’t necessarily experience every day. That is the importance of true conceptual art – to take an ordinary object and present it in an extraordinary way. Going back in Art History, we witness how conceptual artists, such as Duchamp, have changed and challenged the traditional forms of art, presenting a new way of expression that is just as powerful as a masterfully painted canvas.

I saw the shark, long before I knew who Damien Hirst was and even then, it evoked a lot of emotion and thought. And isn’t that what art is all about – the artist connecting with his audience, no matter what the medium is?  I don’t think the popularity of his name tricked me into becoming a blind ‘fan’ of his art. Neither do I think everyone who likes Hirst has been a victim of his ‘con-art’. 

You can’t fake emotions. To provoke emotions in any way is art in itself. Let’s not forget Picasso’s bulls – simple lines and shapes worth millions now, lines and shapes that defined a new form of art expression. Conceptual installation art is a difficult medium but Damien Hirst does a great job at executing his ideas, with or without his team, his art has become anything but worthless. 

Daily Mail article here