Is the influence of the ultra rich killing art? Part 4, Damien Hirst

Time to take off the kid gloves. If Hirst had produced his own work with his own hands, and if he hadn’t stolen the majority of his ideas from someone else, I’d think some of his work was pretty good. But you just can’t take credit for someone else’s ideas AND someone else’s realization. Hirst and Koons consider themselves “idea men” who don’t need to get their hands dirty making the actual work, but even their ideas are borrowed. At the end of the coffee break, they are art directors, or CEOs of art production factories. As the two richest living artists, they are literally the 1% of the art world, and their work appeals and reflects the corrupt and disconnected values of the ultra elite.

Addictive---detail-of-Dam-007

Detail of one of Damien Hirst’s endlessly bland dot paintings

Damien Hirst is widely considered our Picasso, or the living da Vinci. I can put that to rest, and it’s worth being able to see through the haze of gilded bullshit surrounding this artist. Hirst is responsible for more than 1,400 spot paintings alone. He claims to have painted the first dozen, which I doubt, but even if he did, that’s just 0.09% of them. Nearly 100% of the paintings, which sell in the tens of thousands each, were executed by poorly paid assistants. Hirst acted like a typical businessman reveling in unfettered Capitalism, and the product he churned out was inferior and derivative.

There was absolutely nothing original or interesting about Hirst’s dot paintings, unless it was how many his factory could churn out, and likewise how many a gullible art audience would snap up. Ellsworth Kelly’s Nine Squares of 1977 about summed up all that needed to be said about discreet geometric shapes in flat colors on white. How Hirst justified, artistically speaking, making more than a thousand similarly mind-numbingly boring paintings I can’t imagine.

Kelly,-Hirst,-and-Me-copy

Never really cared for Kelly, but he did this shit first, and changing the squares to circles didn’t change a thing, otherwise the “Nine Triangles” I just knocked out in about 20 minutes is revolutionary. Actually, the above graphic is more interesting than the dot paintings.

Another guy, who I never even heard of, made a dot painting just like a Hirst back in ’54. What’s most interesting is that Hirst has used precisely the same proportions. Hirst’s dot paintings were dead on arrival, and had nothing new to offer to anyone who was already familiar with modern abstract art and color field art. Their virtue was that they were empty, easy to brand as a style, easy to make perfect, easy to manufacture, and easy to sell. It doesn’t really matter if these paintings are any good, as long as they are pure and perfect, large, and the art audience can self-mesmerize in front of them. Perhaps this is why the spot paintings were featured in 11 simultaneous openings at Larry “Go-Go” Gagosian Galleries around the world. Personally, I would find this kind of work far too light to bother making in the first place, and I’d be embarrassed to put my name on it.

Francois Morellet, Bleu-Vert-Jaune-Orange

Francois Morellet, “Blue Green Yellow Orange” 1954. It’s been done!

It is worth considering Hirst’s own defense of accusations that his dot paintings were light on substance because they’d been painted by his assistants. It’s quite a feat of Capitalism to sell the work of artist assistants, whose labor isn’t deemed worthy of good pay, as priceless works of ones own hand. Hirst would, like Warhol, be wise to remain silent on his work (feigning childish innocence), because when he makes an argument, it goes out into the world of objective reason where it can be rationally defeated. Unlike the arbitrary relativism of his art, which mirrors the arbitrary rule of the few, it can be proved wrong. His arguments, which I took from an article in the Telegraph, are as follows:

  1. You have to look at it as if the artist is an architect, and we don’t have a problem that great architects don’t actually build the houses.
  2. I controlled every aspect of them coming into being and much more than just designing them or even ordering them over the phone. And my hand is in evidence in the paintings everywhere.
  3. every single spot painting contains my eye, my hand and my heart.
  4. I wanted to create a system where whatever decisions you make within a painting, the paintings end up happy. And I came up with spot paintings.

Number 1 warrants being defeated on the behalf of Hirst and Koons together. Never mind for a moment that spot paintings can’t be compared to architecture anymore than twerking can be compared to gymnastics, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings, let alone his buildings, trump Hirst’s spot paintings.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Water Sketch

Frank Lloyd Wright, “Falling Water Sketch”. All of Hirst’s 1,400 spot paintings combined aren’t as profound as this “sketch” by a true artist.

Oops, I didn’t “never mind”. Forgive me, but after looking at Hirst’s Wonder Bread knock offs, I was blown away by the drawings of Wright. There are many, many of them, but I’ll just add one that’s a little different, and uses circles and colors in a sophisticated way that is beyond Hirst’s capabilities as a dot painter, and as an artist in general.

Frank Lloyd Wright,

Frank Lloyd Wright, “the Beautiful New” design for a carpet.

The above design using circles and colors possesses a subtlety and understanding of color, composition, and art in general that challenges the best visual artists, and leaves Hirst in the dirt. The beauty of this carpet design (of all things) is stunning. The subtle greens and blues and oranges, the interplay and contrast between colors, circles, arcs, planes and lines is just fabulous. Assistants couldn’t produce it, but then again neither could most artists. Art buyers take note, you can probably pick this up for less than the £1.8 million pounds that was paid for a Hirst spot painting.

Aside from Wright’s drawings being more interesting than Hirst’s dot paintings, a lot more goes into designing a building than conceiving a dot painting. The design of the building IS the art, and the building of it is the execution. Of course it would be impossible for Wright to have designed AND built his Falling Water House. In the same way, when Beethoven composed a piece, that was the art, even if he was himself a virtuoso piano player. In the case of Wright or Beethoven they provide exact instructions on how to execute their work. This is absolutely NOT the case with Hirst. Not only does he not come up with the design on his own, but appropriates it from somewhere else, and at most puts a spin on it. He doesn’t himself know how to realize the pieces physically, so can’t give instructions. He has to hire experts to figure out both how to make his art, and then to make it as well. He is perfectly incapable of making his own work when it comes to his giant anatomical sculptures. His only contribution was the “idea” of doing it.

In short, what Hirst does is the equivalent of hiring an architect and a crew of workers to makes his work (if he doesn’t just steal the architect’s plans and appropriate them as his own).

Please allow me to go on a brief tangent and break this up with some humor using my Photoshop skills. Then I’ll get back to the arguments.


girl-and-adReally, are Hirst’s spot paintings any better than the vision captured in the Wonder Bread ad ? People are spending millions on Wonder Bread wall paper!

Damien Hirst Wonder Bread Spot Paintings

The new

The new “GOO” paintings, by Hirst and underpaid army of assistants


Back to dismantling Hirst’s rhetoric about his spot paintings. His second and third argument were that his eye, hand, and heart were in every dot of every painting, even if they were made by assistants. He mentioned that his contribution was “much more than just designing them or even ordering them over the phone”. This is just a pugnacious assertion of the ridiculous. Either your hand is making the painting or it isn’t. If he wasn’t there doing it, and did little more than order it over the phone, his heart wasn’t in it any more than his stomach was digesting the food his assistants were eating. All he did was come up with a template, or more likely have someone else come up with it, for making really simplistic and banal paintings that a factory could churn out. And that’s what happened.

Hirst’s other argument is just an injection of stupidity, and if it can work for Koons it can work for Hirst. I’m still waiting for either of these artists to utter anything intelligent. Hirst claimed he wanted to “create a system where whatever decisions you make within a painting, the paintings end up happy. And I came up with spot paintings.” In other words, the extremely limited range of creative choices, and the inability of the style to contain any content whatsoever, produces vacuousness. “Happy” became “good” with Hirst at the same time it did with Koons. Instead of addressing any of the pressing issues of our species – the wars, the war on freedom and privacy terror, climate change, and the economic crisis – the world’s most recognized and rewarded artists retreated into absolute vapidity. Inanity became the new wisdom, and inability the new virtuosity. Instead of challenging the ruling elite – who through ruthless selfishness and greed are steering humanity to extinction – they hopped on board and drooled in their laps. They offered us Wonder Bread wallpaper and candy hearts wrapped in foil. GOO! And if one wanted to counter that artists don’t need to address the greater human condition in order for their work to matter, not addressing it is in itself a sociopolitical statement.

The Last Scent

“The Last Cent”, digital painting by me. Less mindlessly happy about global warming and predatory capitalism. Click to go to a post about this image.

There is at least one website devoted to unveiling the sources for Damien’s “original” ideas. Nearly everything he’s done has been accounted for: the shark tank, the bisected animals, the butterfly paintings, the diamond-crusted skull, the spin paintings, and the giant anatomical models…

Damien Hirst Hymn, 1999 – 2005 (painted bronze)

Damien Hirst Hymn, 1999 – 2005 (painted bronze). Inset: Humbrol’s anatomical model. Hirst was sued for copyright infringement for making an exact replica of the manufacturer’s educational toy.

Hirst is a threadbare artist, and it might not be too difficult to take over his seat at the helm of his art production company, churning out ever more giant copies of other people’s work. He is NOT shocking if you for a moment take his art out of the hallowed quotation marks of the “Fine Art” context. The anatomical models could easily be props in a Natural History museum, and his claim to fame, the shark tank, would be a minor curiosity at best at Sea World.

“Andro-Gene, by Damien Hirst” by Erich Küns. This “Hirst” fits in very nicely with his anatomical sculpture series, whatever pretentious name he gave it. However, this version is mine, and if the idea is all important, well, it’s not so hard at all. It’s about time he started doing stuff with anatomical frogs, or having the detachable organs as separate sculptures placed nearby. Click to see more of my own monumental conceptual art for the 1%.

I first saw Hirst’s giant anatomical copies in a YouTube clip of art critic Robert Hughes discussing Hirst’s “Virgin Mother”. What he said was more shocking than the art.

Robert Hughes in fron of Damien Hirst's

Robert Hughes in front of Damien Hirst’s “Virgin Mother”. Initially, I didn’t understand why Hughes reviled this work.

Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce. Just extraordinary. You know, when I look at a thing like this, I realize that so much of art – not all of it, thank God, but a lot of it – has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandizement of the rich and ignorant. It is a kind of bad, but useful business. ~ Robert Hughes on “Virgin Mother”

It was only months later, after I came to appreciate that the sculpture was about 90% just a blow up of an anatomical model, and 10% modifications made by hired sculptors, that I came to agree with Hughes. The art appears to trump the art of other sculptors, who merely sculpt the outside of figures, while this one shows the insides as well, and on an enormous scale. But this is a mere trick, akin to entering a Porsche in a soap box derby, and then pawning it off as something one had the ingenuity to make oneself in ones own garage. It’s just stealing someone else’s idea and design, and paying experts to render it on a scale that can’t be ignored.

Sharks in aquariums versus live caught versus Damien Hirst shark in tank

Top: Whale shark in an aquarium. Wow! Bottom left: Angler Vic Hislop with a monster white shark caught in Australia. Holy Crap! Bottom right: Damien Hirst and pickled rotting tiger shark. Wake me up when it’s over! When you take Hirst’s work out of the museum or high-end gallery, it becomes third rate.

The last example I’d like to share of HIrst’s oeuvre is his diamond encrusted skull, the apotheosis of art of and for the 1%. Hirst got the grand idea of making the most expensive piece of art ever. Keeping with not thinking too much or infusing any real substance into his art, he went from the gut with the first notion that welled up: cover the thing in diamonds. Hoo-Ha! And he had the money to do it. “Cover what in diamonds?” he asked himself. The answer came like an epiphany, “A fookin’ skull!” A skull cast in platinum and encrusted with diamonds! Really just a bigger, more expensive version of costume jewelry. I just re-watched a video to take some scrupulous notes for you all, so I get the details right, and noticed he actually had one of those jeweled skull rings on his finger while he was making his own diamond skull. Sometimes one needs look no further for inspiration than ones own lap.

Hirst skull ring, For the Love of God

Hirst needed look no further for inspiration for his diamond-encrusted skull than the ring on his finger. Still from video with the skull in production. (Click to go to video)

You can see my parody of the above video here, though it’s at least as big a lampoon on Jeff Koons, who I am loosely impersonating.

Just to get the facts out of the way, the piece is made from a cast of an actual skull from the 18th century, is studded with 8,601 flawless diamonds, includes an enormous pink diamond on the forehead, and uses the original teeth from the source human skull. Hirst hired jewelers Bentley and Skinner, who have an appointment to the Queen, to create the piece for him. His selling price for the piece was $50,000,000.

Damien Hirst and his diamond encrusted skull,

Damien Hirst and his diamond encrusted skull, “For the Love of God” (2007). Licking the teeth, which are the actual teeth of the dead man, demonstrates Hirst has no reverence or consideration at all for the person whose skull he decorated for his own self-aggrandizement.

The art itself is something a school boy could have cooked up, nevertheless an element of it indeed startled me, and that was just, again, the fact that Hirst didn’t make it himself. Maybe the knowledge that he didn’t make it himself impressed me more because I heard him say it himself in a video, and that he was surprised by the way it came out. Essentially, he ordered the art. We know he’d say his eye, heart, and hand were behind every one of the 8,601 acts of fusing a diamond to the skull, but we’d also know that is a load of bollocks. And most importantly, he didn’t know what he was going to say about death until someone else finished saying it for him.

wow

Still from video in which Hirst expresses his surprise at the quality of the diamond skull Bentley and Skinner produced for him. (Click to go to video)

When Hirst put “For the Love of God” up for auction, he was also selling 250 silk screens of a photo of it, sprinkled with diamond dust, for $10,000 each: an enterprising way to garner another $2.5 million. This is not an artist who happens to be an amateur businessman, this is a businessman who happens to be an amateur artist. If that sounds exaggerated, consider that he tried to sue a 16 year old artist, Cartrain, for using a photo of the skull in a collage which he made £200 off of. The kid had to give up the money he’d made because of Hirst’s viciously competitive ego.

Hirst-vs-Cartrain

Yup, Damien Hirst sicked his lawyers on a teenager who made £200 off of a collage which had his own “For the Love of God” skull in it, and made him cough up the dough. The word “asshole” springs to mind.

Cartrain’s collage is clearly something altogether different from Hirst’s work, and there’s much less to attack as copyright infringement than Hirst’s own borrowing of ideas from other artists, including the work in question. The main point is that Hirst behaves like a ruthless businessman, blithely lifting other artist’s ideas, and viciously attacking someone who merely incorporated a photo of one of his works into a completely different form of art.

Hirst has said that “For the Love of God” is about death, and that “Every artwork that has ever interested [him] is about death”, but it really has nothing to do with death, other than incorporating the most cliched symbol of death – the skull – in a way that is a cruel indifference to life. Below is a similar artwork, featuring an elephant’s skeleton draped in gold.

Gold draped skeleton of pakiderm from The Protector, starring Tony Jaa

Latest masterwork from Damien Hirst, or prop from martial arts movie? This gold-draped elephant’s skeleton was the fate of the cherished pet of a Thai martial artist in the movie, “The Protector” starring Tony Jaa.

I rather suspect that if the above prop – from the 2005 Thai martial arts movie “The Protector” – were to be sold as a Damien Hirst, it would fetch tens of millions of dollars, and for-hire art critics would sing its praises. In the movie, however, it is not a coveted work of art, but the terrible fate of the protagonist’s pet elephant, which was stolen and served up as food in a Chinese restaurant in Australia. The elephant skeleton sculpture is about death for Kham, the young Thai boxer, who lost his elephant, in that the living flesh has been replaced by the ornaments of wealth accrued in its own extinguishing. Kham sees the tragic victim. But for the restaurant owner, it is a sign of triumph over others and nature, and a testament to her wealth. So is the skull in Hirst’s “For the Love of God” a testament to HIS triumph over death, via lording himself over the death of another.

I find it bizarre that an artist who spent millions bejeweling the skull of another human being, would have nothing to say about who that person was. It is as if that other soul were irrelevant, and as irrelevant as Hirst’s assistants or the people he appropriates the inspiration for his own work from. Has Hirst ever asked himself whether he would want someone else to make an ornament of his own skull for their own self-aggrandizement? I doubt it. If anything he would make an irreverent quip that made as little sense as anything he or Koons have to say about their own work.

visiting_the_dead_by_erickuns-d4myuzr

Visiting the Dead (Charcoal, 1991), by me. I almost think my own drawing of 23 years ago, and 16 years before Hirst’s magnificent achievement, said more about death.

Here’s what Hirst had to say about his jeweled skull, “Because we’re dealing with death, which is so negative, it has to be totally positive”. To someone unaccustomed to looking past the surface shimmer, this might not sound insipid, but if you think about it for more than a split second, it’s meaningless gibberish. Why does a subject which is “negative” have to be treated in a way that is “positive”? Are we afraid of any “negative” content, and must he make something as inevitably “happy” as his dot paintings? If so, than it is no longer about death at all, it’s about ignoring it, in which case we can’t take Hirst seriously at all in his claim that “Every artwork that has ever interested me is about death”.

I’ve been working on this article on and off for so long now that I’ve finished a new piece (below) which just so happens to be about death. It isn’t happy, and I knew what it was about before it was finished because I made it myself and created it in such a way that it would express my intent. No diamonds were used, and no assistants. Just me and a pencil.

Game Over, pencil drawing by Eric Kuns

“Game Over”, by Eric Wayne [6B pencil on A4 paper. 2/2014]

What does “the greatest living artist” have to say about death? As his life-long obsession, surely we can gain some insight into death from the artist. Yet he wasn’t sure how his skull would come out, or what it would suggest, until the jewelers finished it. Afterwards he conceded that he thought it would be dark, but it was “optimistic”. The jewelers’ craftsmanship decided his own insight into death. How or why death is optimistic we are left to figure out on our own, but I think it was because it was shiny. In short, after decades of art focused on death, Hirst has nothing to offer beyond an adolescent boy’s knee-jerk association of skulls and bones with death, or deferring to the implications of someone else’s execution of his borrowed idea.

But he is right that the work is NOT about death in a negative way, and it IS about something happy, namely the (albeit illusory) triumph of the ego over death through the self-immortalization riches can bring. Intended to be the most expensive work of art ever created, it’s about money, fame, and fortune. It is as vainglorious as the tombs of the Pharaohs, a refusal to acknowledge the death of their own egos, and a willingness to sacrifice others to create the impression of immortality for themselves.

“For the Love of God” encapsulates everything that is wrong with Hirst’s art. The idea isn’t original. He didn’t make it himself. He couldn’t make it himself. He couldn’t determine the outcome. It required outrageous sums of money to produce. It was flawlessly executed and otherwise perfect. Aesthetics were left to a bare minimum, and visual language was mostly absent. There is no personal touch. Its message is ambivalent because arbitrary. It tried to make an audacious move in a game of avant-garde, artistic oneupmanship, but had nothing to say about the human condition. It is unbelievably expensive.

This is an art that can only be produced by the already fabulously wealthy. It sees the unbridled genius of the artist celebrity as entirely above the physical making of the art, which can be relegated to underlings, in which case the artist becomes more of an art director or CEO of an art factory. It eschews aesthetics, and thus any aesthetic standards, that might put it on an equal playing field with other art, instead striving to outshine them in quality automatically by incorporating priceless jewels. It eliminates personal expression, and thus extinguishes the relevance of artists’ individual expression of their own being and circumstances. All of these qualities work well with, and substantiate, the underlying self-serving and distorted worldview of the plutocracy, which privileges the overinflated whims of the elite above the humanity, authenticity, and the work of everyone else. It also values fashion objects above meaningful art.

~ Ends


In “Is the influence of the ultra rich killing art? Part 5” I’ll try to wrap this all up in a clear and convincing conclusion. Parts 1 and 2 set up my argument, 3 and 4 give Koons and Hirst as bright, shining examples, and 5 will round it out.

Is the influence of the ultra rich killing art? Part 1
Is the influence of the ultra rich killing art? Part 2
Is the influence of the ultra rich killing art? Part 3

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18 thoughts on “Is the influence of the ultra rich killing art? Part 4, Damien Hirst

      1. Certainly the likes of us were, but the bit I like is that pretty much every Britisher I’ve met, interested in art or not, knows of Hirst and his “outrageous” antics from the tabloids. Not saying that’s the way it has to be done, but it is nice to have a starting point when talking about art with people who might not otherwise be interested. Can’t say the same for most of my American friends, who probably wouldn’t know who Koons is. I live in Tacoma, Washington, where Dale Chihuly is probably the best-known living artist. I prefer talking about the problems Hirst and Koons raise to those of Chihuly.

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        1. In America, though, we have our Andy Warhol, who is essentially the same thing. He hired other people to make his appropriated art for him. His celebrity made his works into fetish objects like religious relics. Koons and Hirst are part of that same tradition.

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          1. Certainly, but my point is that Hirst mostly and Koons a bit less have created a little public outroar that engages the public now. Andy Warhol died more than 25 years ago, the public’s not terribly engaged. I’m with you on everything you said in your post, not as original as it might seem etc, but it’s nice to have non-art people talking about it nonetheless.

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            1. I can go along with that. But, if people are just discussing whether or not it is art, whether or not it sucks, and whatnot, I’m not sure if that’s really good for art. Better if people were talking about art because it moved them, captivated them, or interested them.

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  1. Hirst inspires protest, publicity and scandal. The damming case against him and his work, is key to his success. The laws of art, are irrelevant to Contemporary Art. The laws of Contemporary Art, are the laws of anti-art.

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  2. Thoroughly researched and educational post. I liked your twerking and digesting assistants’ food analogies. Oh, and is it just me but are those dot paintings Twister game boards? You can save yourself the trouble and buy the game, and hang up the plastic sheet on your wall and call it art.

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  3. That Damien Hirst enjoys obscene valuation in current art auctions for his Dot paintings, is in one respect exactly what you argue as the distortion of the art market by the super rich. Alternatively it could also be viewed as yet another example of market-failure, the repeated overheated valuation of the herd into what ever economic bubble tracks the latest popular fad.

    Another set text from art-schools here in Auz, (years after me when my little brother went).
    “Framing Art: Introducing Theory And The Visual Image” by Michael Carter ©1990 Good overview of the topic. Anyway in that book is the example of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1904 painting “The Finding of Moses” that sold in 1904 for £5,250 {in 2015 money ≈ £5,246,000} it sold in 1960 for only £252 {in 2015 money ≈ £5K ~ £18K.}

    https://www.wikiart.org/en/sir-lawrence-alma-tadema/the-finding-of-moses-1904

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    1. The dot paintings are another example of ultra popular, expensive art that would also be a very convincing parody in a fictitious work. That seems to almost be a qualification of the most admired art: it is on the razors edge with being garbage.

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