“The world's an ugly place; you need to brighten it up whenever you can.”
Damien Hirst left Goldsmith’s College in London in 1989 with a clear-eyed vision of his future. He had a list of the people he needed to court, a strong sense of his own identity ( a Mockney accent and a penchant for wearing black and white) and a few reheated ideas from the likes of Duchamp and Warhol. Now, with his enormous exhibition currently at Tate Modern we can all see how it's turned out.
I think one description of Hirst which is highly relevant is “the artist we deserve”. He is the artist of the Ikea generation, the credit bubble, the age of celebrity – his work is quick, slick, sometimes beautiful and available in virtually every size and colour. Like Andy Warhol he embraced a “factory” approach – the endless spot paintings, for example, churned out by teams of painters and then by digital print - but, unlike Warhol, had little or no involvement in the final work. A signed, mechanically printed, reproduction of one of these extremely arms-length masterpieces can be yours for £20,000. (That’s right – a piece of paper which has been run through a computer printer of an image Damien didn’t paint will cost you twenty grand). And there it is: the point every conversation about him arrives at - Hirst equals money.
But is that all? I don't think so. Nearly every idea Hirst has put before us has some merit: facing a shark head on is to go some way towards imagining your own death, the soothing colours of sleeping pills in a medicine cabinet invokes the lethal attraction of endless sleep, a hypnotic mandala of butterfly wings leaves you stunned by the glory of nature. But. for me at least, once the first thrill is gone there is just the dull emptiness of repetition and the distant ringing of a till.
I would certainly advise anyone who wants to see a terrific lesson in the history of modern art to go Tate Modern and see Hirst’s artistic life on show. Its on till September and you may be moved in ways you don’t expect.
Most artists want to make a living out of our art but most of us are driven by the urge, the joy, the obsession of creativity - by the constant refrain that there is more to say and a better way to say it. I feel, however, that all poor old Damien has driving him onward these days is the empty thrill of a full wallet.
Damien Hirst's Solo Exhibition is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London from 4 April 2012 – 9 September 2012