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A Volte-Face with a Commercial Advantage

What is Damien Hirst Playing At?

by CHARLES THOMSON

"I always thought painting was the best thing to do … I don’t like conceptual art".  This is a sentiment felt by many people, and one of the main practitioners of conceptual art they might have in mind is Damien Hirst, particularly for his $12 million pickled shark, now on loan display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is therefore astonishing that the statement was made recently by Hirst himself.

It is just as well that he said it after, and not before, his Sotheby’s auction in September 2008, which was composed of the conceptual art he doesn’t like and which over two days netted £115 million (then $199 million).  Its centre piece was The Golden Calf, a calf with gold-plated horns and hooves preserved in formaldehyde. This was, one might think, a clear enough insult to the clientele about the falseness of their idolatry, but it merely succeeded in encouraging them, and the calf was bought for £10.3 million, beating Hirst’s previous auction record and helping him to the position of, according to Andrew Graham-Dixon in The Sunday Telegraph, the world’s richest ever living artist.

Hirst’s latest statement does not seem on the face of it to be very commercially astute. It brings to mind Gerald Ratner, who by 1989 could claim to be the world’s biggest jeweller with 2,000 shops on two continents and 80% of the UK market. He had built up the family jewellery business to a billion pounds a year turnover by eschewing the stuffy traditions of the trade and emblazoning his high street shops with vulgar day-glo "sale" signs offering continual bargains. In 1991 he made a speech, which proved to be his undoing, during the Institute of Directors annual conference at the Albert Hall in London.

He launched into a joke that his shops "sold a pair of earrings for under a pound, which is cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer, but probably wouldn’t last as long".  This brings to mind (apart from the price, that is) Hirst’s shark, which had to be replaced after the original rotted.  Ratner’s commercial suicide came when he proceeded to mention the firm’s cut-glass sherry decanters, on sale for £4.95, and wise-cracked, "People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’, I say, ‘because it’s total crap’."  The Daily Mirror followed up with a front page headline, "You 22 carat gold mugs".  Ratners rapidly lost customers and  £500 million in value. The public didn’t mind buying cheap crap and deluding themselves that they were getting the real McCoy for a bargain, but they weren’t prepared to play along if the vendor was going to point out the reality to them.

Hirst, however, is in a different financial position. Ratner undermined his current stock. Hirst is devaluing a discontinued range. His stunning aversion to the genre through which he made his fame and fortune is to be found in the catalogue text of his new show, No Love Lost, staged in the musty museum setting of the Wallace Collection in London’s Manchester Square amongst the quiet streets behind Selfridges on Oxford Street. The Museum is famed for its fine collection of 17th and 18th paintings, as well as its ceramics and armour.

Here Hirst is exhibiting for the first time paintings done by his own hand. (Previously exhibited paintings "by" Hirst were physically executed by assistants or the arbitrariness of a rapidly revolving turntable.)  He sees the 2008 Sotheby’s auction as marking the end of his previous oeuvre and this show as the new direction.  Should his derogatory remark prompt a chain reaction which crashes the conceptual market and boosts that for painting, it can only be to his current advantage, though the effect on the holdings of his customers to date will be a different matter.

If the critics are anything to go by, this is not likely to happen. They  have arisen with all the venom they can muster to condemn the paintings as "the level of a not-very-promising, first-year art student" (Tom Lubbock, The Independent), "amateurish and adolescent" (Adrian Searle, The Guardian), "dreadful" (Rachel Campbell-Johnson, The Times) and "fucking dreadful" (Brian Sewell, Evening Standard).  I found the work a distinct improvement on anything else Hirst has done to date, and was surprised to discover I could not only understand a lot more about what he was saying, but appreciate the smaller sized works, although the bigger ones generally overstretched his abilities, with the exception of an expansive and even beautiful flower painting.  (Beauty is only beginning to creep back as an art critical term at the moment.)  

However, the function of critics nowadays is simply to indicate what is important by the amount of space they give it, and they have given Hirst star billing. What they actually say is irrelevant, although "bad" reviews are probably preferable for the notoriety and controversy they bestow, which generate far more interest than a bland accolade.  Half the work in Hirst’s show is already owned by Ukrainian steel billionaire, Victor Pinchuk, who has previously shown the paintings in Kiev.  The price he paid is circulating on the grapevine as £50 million.  More paintings by Hirst will go on show in the White Cube gallery next month with single panels priced up to £2.5 million and triptychs around £10 million. (Knock off three or four noughts and you would get a more fitting price.)

An advertising executive, with whom I entered into a chance conversation whilst wandering around Hirst’s show, had no doubt that the new stance was simple expediency to promote and sell the latest output.  I’m not sure I could so confidently dismiss out of hand any genuine creative motive on Hirst’s part, although I note that, despite his now saying that he has always wanted to paint, in 1997 he was quoted in The Penguin Book of Art Writing: "The process of painting is meaningless, old-fashioned.  Today there are better ways for artists to communicate." But then, of course, he had something different to sell.

CHARLES THOMSON is co-founder of the Stuckists art group
www.stuckism.com

References

Ratner on Ratner
http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/

Prawn sandwich quote:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3199822.stm

Sherry decanter quote:
http://www.independent.co.uk

Pinchuk owns half the paintings in the Wallace Collection show:
http://www.bloomberg.com/

Hirst painting prices at White Cube show, November 2009:
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/