Hirst’s new Mega-Show: Vacuous Baubles of, by, and for, the Morbidly Wealthy

If you prefer, you can watch the video version.

Hirst’s Sphinx is one of 189 sculptures commissioned created by the oligarch artist.

Before we get started, I want you to look at just one of the 189 sculptures by Damien Hirst in his “Treasures From The Wreck of the Unbelievable”.

This is a detail of just one of his Hydra and Kali sculptures.

Looking at this image, what level of sculptural skill was needed to make it? It’s extraordinarily skilled and polished, isn’t it? In fact no credit is given to the hands that sculpted the work, and all is given to the man who paid for it. And my question for you is, and you have to answer honestly, which was harder to do a) think up that someone should make this sort of sculpture, or b) make it? If you chose “a” than you are either thinking way to hard, and doing rhetorical back flips through flaming hoops, or you are not thinking at all. As an artist, if the art world will accept me as one at all (you can look around and decide for yourself), I could not take credit for a sculpture like this, unless I made it myself. It’s just too much skill to say that the final creation belongs entirely to the person who directed it, and not at all to the person who make it.  It’s like Don King taking credit for Muhammad Ali’s boxing in the ring. On top of that, it is ONLY the execution of this piece that interests me, and the idea, if there is one, not at all. And that goes for all the pieces I’ve seen in the show. The idea is threadbare, and the execution is consummate. The result is an inflated, elaborated, gilded vacuity.

The show is an empty advertisement showcasing the products and services rendered by the companies and individuals Hirst hired to produce the work.

Today is a bit of a double whammy for my beleaguered mind. Trump just shot dozens of missiles into Syria, and Damien Hirst’s new spectacle extraordinaire opened its gaping maw, filled with jewel-encrusted teeth. Of course these two things are not equal, even if they both share a triumph of money and power over people and art. It’s one thing to lord opulence over the masses, as has Hirst done, and it’s another to annihilate us. The missiles fired off by Trump may not themselves have taken lives (haven’t heard a claim on that yet), but the act potentially can effect millions for starters. I’ll  get to Hirst in a moment.

I tweeted that if Trump wants war with Assad, they can meet in the octagon and fight to the death. War is quite possibly the greatest human stupidity and vulgarity. That those responsible are not utterly horrified by the prospect of unimaginable suffering signals that they are not entirely cognizant of what it means to be alive and human. Nobody who was would wish on another, and particularly an innocent, atrocity that one could never fathom enduring oneself. The old familiar rhetoric is crammed down our throats again: in order to protect the innocent from the vile crimes of the heinous dictator, and his use of chemical weapons, we will pound their country back into the stone age. And this is why we need to defund art, and shift those monies into the military. I realize the situation is much more complex than I’ve outlined, and readily admit my lack of any definite knowledge or understanding of the conflict in the region. I’m much more certain that I am not supposed to know the truth, and there are formidable hurdles blocking ones ability to access the truth.

Back to Hirst. If you aren’t an artist yourself, struggling to be more than an unseen needle in a mountain of hay, and making art at your own financial detriment, you may not realize how devastating to artists in general are multi-million dollar spectacles constructed by teams of artisans and specialists. It is a bit like confronting Goliath with a slingshot, but this time Goliath is wearing a suit of armor, and is armed to the teeth (but no chemical or biological weapons). Artists of average means, irrespective of ability, vision, or potential, can not possibly afford to compete with Damien Hirst at his game.

The Calendar Stone by Damien Hirst.

Alas, I am already bored by his exhibit, not that I can afford to go see it. It is for the ultra-wealthy connoisseurs. Having accessed most my art through reproductions throughout my life, I’m quite good at getting the art without seeing it in person (though I certainly benefit when I do get the opportunity to see works in person). Seeing the collection of Van Gogh paintings in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was a treat, but did not improve my understanding or appreciation of the painter. What I’m getting at is that I don’t really need to go to the show in person to get a grasp of it and get bored.

Hydra and Kali sculptures by Hirst. wonder how long before he’s accused of cultural appropriation.

Hirst has outdone himself in terms of grandiosity, bombast, and undoubtedly expense, and yet, despite the countless hours, nearly infinite budget, and monumental artifacts, the show is virtually substanceless. It says, “Look what I can do!” It’s a rich kid rolling up to a go-cart competition in a custom automobile commissioned by the designers at Lamborghini. The race is cancelled and everyone looks on, slack-jawed, as the richest kid in the neighborhood by a magnitude of hundreds roles in on a level of opulence formerly reserved for Kings. It is not the best car present. A few of the go-carts show more imagination, and offer a more exciting, albeit bumpy ride.

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a themed exhibit, based on a fantastical story that the artifacts presented were discovered in a shipwreck. He even bothered to hire people to create videos of these works (or facsimiles thereof) being discovered and retrieved from the depths of the ocean.

The story does absolutely nothing for me, as it’s obviously fake (which we are obviously supposed to know), and is just a pretext to make a WHOA moment in an evening’s pondering over watching The Pirates of the Caribbean and thumbing through National Geographic into justification for making sea treasures into grandiose art spectacles.

You know what this show reminds me of? I’ll tell you what it doesn’t remind me of, first. It doesn’t remind me of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Those towers were created by one dude, Simon Rodia, over 33 years, by himself. He was an Italian immigrant, construction worker, and tile mason. They share with Hirst’s show monumentality (the largest tower is 99 feet high), and the act of encrusting objects, though in Rodia’s case it was often bottles and tiles brought to him by local children.

View of a few of the 17 towers making up the Watts Towers, by Italian Immigrant, Simon Rodia.

There the comparison ends. Rodia’s work represents his unique vision, and is a consequence of his own labor and know-how. Trump’s Hirst’s vision is not so apparent in the art, as crafted by hired artisans, but rather in the strategy and other non-visual impetus behind the work. Get this brilliant idea: make the most valuable contemporary art by making fake versions of what would be the most valuable artifacts (if they were real). Get it? Fook yeah! Making money is the highest form of making art, so said Warhol, so regurgitated Trump, so believes Hirst. There may be some truth in there somewhere, I don’t know where, but it would be more accurate to say that making money is the highest form of avarice. We’re talking about making huge amounts of money, here, folks, not just enough for you and your family to live very comfortably on. F’ing Martin Shkreli called using a “your money or your life” ultimatum to exact exceedingly high prices for life-saving drugs “art”. Yes he did. And he got that idea from the very ilk the loins of which Hirst sprang from.

Ah, fuck, Hirst’s show really is much more like Trump Tower than the Watts Towers. Trump didn’t design the towers, and they are a monument to the ostentatious.

Simon Rodia.

And that is one of Hirst and his believer’s arguments, that he is like an architect, and architects don’t physical build their own buildings. I find it embarrassing that artists and critics who not only pride themselves of their philosophical acumen and expertise on all things artistic can’t tell the difference between an architect and a real estate developer. Hirst is not like Frank Lloyd Wright. An architect designs the building, and it is built according to his (or her, or xe, or ze, or zie) specifications. Hirst doesn’t design the sculptures or know how to do it. He’s the Trump. He orders his creations and supervises when necessary.

There is also the fallacy that the old masters used assistants to aid them, and thus what Hirst or Koons does is nothing new. Yes it is. The assistants of the old masters weren’t doing anything the artists couldn’t do themselves, or didn’t know how to do. Rubens didn’t call someone in to paint the horses for him. The assistants ground pigments and would work on some paintings, priming  the canvases, or blocking in backgrounds. Pieces which were worked on by assistant were valued less.

I was going to say that Hirst’s new show reminds me of those little museums of 3D paintings and sculptures, perfect for selfies, that have cropped up across SE Asia (and probably elsewhere, but, I live in SE Asia, so those are the ones I know about). I wasn’t even thinking about Trump Tower. It’s just a coincidence that both Trump and Hirst ejaculated their heroic loads on mere mortals at the same time. At least I think it is. Perhaps they are both symptomatic of an incredibly imbalanced world where the undeserving mega-rich lord over everyone else. Anyway, the reason Hirst’s show reminds me of those optical illusion museums is that it’s just spectacle.  You “wow”, take a selfie, and move on. Nothing lingers.

It also reminds me of the latest incarnation of Star Trek, which, completely unlike the original series, bombarded the viewer with explosions, sound effects, and would never let the eye rest for more than 3 seconds (I started counting after I caught on to this). In an attempt to overwhelm the senses, the senses were deadened. In the same way a fan of the original Star Trek might be insulted, so might art fans be insulted by Hirst’s new, glittering, monstrosity. Damien Hollywood.

Granted, the people who created the works for Hirst did a stellar job of it. They made him look like a consummate craftsman, and on a scale none can contend with. And yet, at the same time, the very show is a repudiation of craft and skill. The theme is a half-baked loaf of raisin bread, mere fodder for an uninspired Hollywood blockbuster. What succeeds and wows us is merely the craft itself. Same goes for Jeff Koons. It’s the detail, high-polish, and technique required to make such large objects that ultimately is what effects us, albeit superficially, on the level of immediate impression. And yet,  that workmanship is considered completely irrelevant to the super-genius idea behind making the call to commission the work. Dare I say the idea is shit?

You people who believe in this Trumped up $hit, fund me and I’ll do something better. Not really. I’m not interested. I prefer to make my own art. Anyway, you know what would have been more cool, if you are just going to throw tens of millions at a themed art spectacle? A show themed on vintage UFO footage and lore. Why not build several of those UFOs that were alleged to be housed in Hangar 51. Make ’em big. Make ’em hum. Lights. None of this lame-ass brickwork background that surrounds all of Hirt’s sculptures. The backdrop is metal, or night sky. Make it eerie, retro yet using today’s technology (as Hirst did) to produce effects we can’t even figure out how the hell they were done.

So, last night when the missiles were launched I was finishing up a piece and listening to Voivod (a band a fellow blogger has successfully tried to get me into). Relax. This isn’t self promo. Nobody is going to pay attention to any of my art until someone with authority and a big audience promotes it. But, being me, and being an artist, I can’t help but think about the different processes and orientations of different artists.

The piece in question is a B&W digital drawing done from my imagination. Probably took several hours and is part of a series of “speed” paintings I’m doing. It has a sort of a missile or bomb shape in it, and completely unaware of what was going on in international air space, I named it, ironically, “Missiles of Mercy”. The un-ironic, un-poetic title would be “Missiles of Murder”.

#24: Missiles of Mercy.

One of the things that appeals to me about working in this style (which is one of a few styles I’ve recently developed) is the simplicity of the technique, which therefore showcases the innovation or imagination. There’s no hiding behind millions of dollars and the world’s best artisans and technicians. There’s just what I can do all by myself, for free, drawing in black and white. And one of my goals is to see the unseen. As far as that goal is concerned, this simply made drawing succeeds where Hirst’s whole show fails. I haven’t quite seen this kind of image before, but Hirst’s epic 189 sculptures look so much like Hollywood props that they are all too familiar from the get go. They are essentially appropriations. There’s no contending with abstraction or artistic interpretation via medium. They are high-end, ultra-polished, naturalistic versions of extant imagery, with a twist of lime, like giving one sculpture the head of Yolandi Visser of Die Antwoord. Even that is accomplished via the unquestioned naturalism of 19th century realism.

As with Koons’ similar works, there is no relation between the artists themselves and the medium. That relation is between the hired artisan and the materials, and relies entirely on largely commercial techniques which exist completely independent of the artist. You can say, “it’s a new idea”, as is so often said, but that’s not what anyone is getting out of it. They are in awe of the sheer craft of it, and unless Hirst has changed, those responsible for the craft involved are unmentioned and unmentionable.  It would, indeed, make more sense if the artist who banks on skill being irrelevant presented work which was above and beyond all not a spectacle of technical, and perfect, virtuosity (Guston’s late work comes to mind). If Hirt’s ideas are so profound, why do they need to be encased in exquisitely crafted, perfected objects? I think any artist can tell you that the difficult part is the execution, and not the idea. Here’s another question for you. Do you think it was harder for Michelangelo to think of making the sculpture of David, or to chisel it out of marble over a three year period? Right, it was the idea. Who would have thought of David, or Hydra and Kali. Anyone can sculpt it, once you have the idea. X

I can sum up the show in two words: WOW! ZZZZzzzzz.


Was that too harsh and hyperbolic? Yeah, probably. I’m not covering the other side and am giving just one side of the argument, here. Sorry about that. I got spun up in my own narrative and missed the big picture.

I see the other side. An artist has the opportunity to do absolutely whatever he wants, with as much money as he wants, and as many and as great of “assistants” as he needs. He comes up with this blockbuster of a show, and if you didn’t know better, and had amnesia, and just stumbled into the exhibit, you’d probably like it. What the F is wrong with submerged figures with coral growing over them? It’s all pretty cool.

I suppose I am just overreacting out of disappointment. I wouldn’t have wanted Damien Hirst to go with fantasy and buried treasure. I’m not a fan of his, but he could have surprised me. Had he done the UFO theme, I would probably have been won over.

The other thing that disappoints me is that the sculptures are all accomplished, but, yeah, they don’t have the extra flair that sculptures made directly by an artist have. Compare one of them to say, a sculpture by H.R. Giger. Obviously Giger has his own style, created his own universe, and Hirst’s sculptures have no real style. There’s nothing special about them.

That’s the thing with commissioning people to make bitchin’ sculptures, Dudester. An artist working directly in the medium can make a better sculpture. Thus, we have a museum filled with 2nd rate sculptures in place of what should be 1st rate artifacts: ones which naturally might have become the most valuable in an ancient given society. Hirst mistakenly makes it a given that his assembled works are the best civilization had/has to offer, when they are not. It’s impossible to commission people to make a work for you, and it be better than an artist making his or her own work. Hirst’s pieces are the equivalent of songs performed by studio musicians, under the direction of a someone else, as compared to songs musicians write and perform for themselves.

You have to ask yourself why he doesn’t do more paintings. I know he tried his hand at fake Bacons, but got panned for it. I respect him for trying. He failed. Anyway, he has those paintings he pays people to paint for him. It’s the same problem with Koons, it’s just obviously a crappy painting when you pay someone to do it, as compared to an artist who makes his or her own painting. It’s the same thing with sculpture, but it’s harder to tell the result is second rate.

I think I’m getting negative again. Let me end on a positive note. I think I’d much rather spend an afternoon in Hirst’s new exhibit than in a Koons show of the same magnitude, as I definitely prefer cool to ironic (or even worse, unironic) kitsch.

I leave you with Voivod’s Kluskap O’ Kom (check out the pounding rhythms and crunchy, galloping guitars). I’d rather listen to them then look at Hirst’s commisioned, ornate crap:

~ Eric

If you are interested in my art or criticism, poke around this site. It’s very easy to navigate and loaded chock full of art and criticism.