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Damien Hirst- artist or con man?
Damien Hirst. The very name epitomises contemporary art for most people- either as what’s best and most collectable or as a complete con. And many people don’t feel the need to have seen his work to have an opinion on it. I’ve been one of them.
So, rather than parrot received views from The Guardian or the Daily Mail, I decided to see for myself by visiting the massive retrospective exhibition currently showing at the Tate Modern. Let me say straightaway that, while I am open minded about art, I did suspect Damien Hirst was overrated, partly because I had an inbuilt prejudice against the way he markets himself, as seen with all the publicity about the diamond encrusted skull. This, I fully admit, is probably a romantic 19th century view that artists should be starving in garrets.
The exhibition confirmed for me at least one of the criticisms made by his detractors. He doesn’t work like a traditional artist. He doesn’t feel the need to put paint on canvas or even, in the modern way, stick odd bits of rubbish together or get hands on in any way. This reminded me of Andy Warhol- another artist who liked to take the artist out of the art and also had the question asked of his work, But is it art?
So, yes, Damien Hirst is a conceptual artist- it’s in the ideas rather than the execution where his creativity lies. But what extraordinary concepts.
Sure, medicines or surgical instruments or medical teaching aids arranged neatly in display cabinets may seem like something anyone could do but, when you see them, each display says so much about our modern obsession with medical science as a way of prolonging life that parallels the role of religion or magic in the past.
I was overwhelmed by four huge displays of thousands of individual pills, which might normally be jumbled in a bottle, all arranged very carefully and neatly giving them a special status, perhaps suggesting communion wafers. And each cabinet had a different colour theme to represent the four seasons and thus our life cycle. Then there were works featuring butterflies and patterns of butterfly wings. Appreciating beauty is something that makes our lives worth living, yet these works also remind us that beauty passes.
You cannot talk of Damien Hirst without referring to his dead animals in formaldehyde. For me, these worked least well but I was still moved by the sight of these creatures looking much as they did when alive but now devoid of life. I found they stirred thoughts of life, death, beauty and decay. These paradoxes and conflicts are to be found within all of Damien Hirst’s works and they make viewing them a rewarding and stimulating experience.
Hirst is part of a recent way of creating art that has dominated for the last few decades. However he shares with many artists of the past a desire to confront what it is to be alive and love and to understand how the prospect of death shapes our lives and loves.
Now, none of this may have convinced you that Hirst is deserving of the praise and prices he gets. I can only say that you need to be in the same room with these impressive creations to appreciate just how complex and beautiful (or occasionally macabre) they are.
As to his marketing, there is no disputing that he is a showman, so much so that I wasn’t expecting his works to live up to the fanfare. But, as someone who has spent most of my working life involved in marketing, I have to show respect when someone does great marketing that actually delivers a great product.
If you are someone who is sceptical about Damien Hirst and contemporary art, I urge you to visit this retrospective- it may change your view. It did mine.
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I co-own Your Life Your Style the home and gifts shop in the Brooks Centre Winchester which also sells online at yourlifeyourstyle.co.uk. I love running a small business. The headlines go to the companies turning over billions of pounds but nearly half the UK economy is powered by small to medium size businesses. Small businesses lead change and offer a huge range of challenges. Having spent my early working life in retailing, I moved into arts marketing including many years as the Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. I still provide marketing and PR support to small businesses. Paul Lewis