Has Damien Hirst Jumped the Shark?

Damien Hirst’s Mortuary (2003-4), at the Gagosian Gallery. Photograph courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery.

Damien hirst is famous for suspending dead animals, among them cows and sheep, in steel-and-glass vitrines filled with formaldehyde. These cadaverous works (the best known holds a large shark and is called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) have made Hirst the glamorous bad boy of art. Great claims are regularly made for him: Not only is he said to criticize Western corruptions of the spirit, such as materialism and indifference toward the natural world, but, it’s thought, he is also engaged in a profound meditation upon death. Skeptics regard this as metaphysical—not just literal—rot. They sometimes become enraged when Hirst attracts coverage. Why give him more attention? Why suck oxygen from other art?

The best answer is that this English artist’s celebrity is also an important social phenomenon, one that provides a sharp portrait of both the art world and the larger culture. Although his new exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery, “Damien Hirst: The Elusive Truth,” contains paintings about fleshly corruption rather than the famous coffin-vitrines, he’s still pulling a crowd. The opening was a feverish social scene; there was a line to get inside the gallery. (Posters and a T-shirt emblazoned with a skull are available.) And, of course, the fashionable showed up to express their concern about death, corruption, and Western materialism. Right? The art world is a comedy of manners, but this partying in front of images of dissection tables was a little broad even for my taste. Hirst has made art from dead flies, which may be why the buzz and social sheen around his art remind me of the beautiful iridescence of the bluebottle, Calliphora vomitoria, which eats and lays its eggs in carrion, open wounds, manure, and other decaying matter.

Hirst is popular because he reflects his time. Whereas he might seem like a wild-man original to many people, within the art world he’s part of the reigning orthodoxy. In his sculpture, he’s a descendant of Duchamp (through the Warhol-Koons line) who works with ready-mades, shock, and irony to make conceptual points. His inclusion of dead animals makes him a titillating taboo-breaker, a familiar cultural stance that appeals to an audience always searching for a new boundary to cross. He also reflects the squeamish English fascination with the flesh, which you can find in, among many others, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud, and Jenny Saville. It helps when people find his work revolting: That reassures fans that he’s radical and, just as important, confirms the social distinction between the knows and the know-nots. The vitrines even capture a strain of campy pop ghoulishness, such as that found in a pierced goth teenager or in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Death can awaken the dead in feeling.

Does this mean Hirst is just a social symbol rather than an interesting artist? Not necessarily. The vitrines actually brought something newly disturbing to the Duchampian tradition. Hirst understands a certain kind of contemporary light—that glow of clinical sterility that, for example, afflicts hospitals. This light looks the way antiseptic smells. It’s an important subject to confront, for it irradiates modern life and threatens to seep into our being. The paintings on display at Gagosian also contain this light, but, unfortunately, they are so dully made that they have little impact. They’re just a series of conceptions: a picture of a mortuary, a shelf of pretty pharmaceuticals, a man with a head injury. Often done by assistants, they depend upon photographs and resemble the sort of affectless conceptual painting now produced by the acre rather than the yard.

But that light lingers in the mind. It’s much more interesting than the portentous ruminations about death that clot the discussion of Hirst. The unvarnished presentation of death is a hoary modern theme, and, here, it represents just another attack on idealist and Platonic traditions. Has no one noticed that, in art and elite culture, this particular battle was won decades ago? Of course, like many artists in the Duchampian line, Hirst wants it both ways. He subverts the idealist view of death, but uses romantic titles. The titles are ironic, but not entirely so. And he’s also attacking his society for being without ideals. Warhol was the master of this double and triple game: You could never be sure if he was mocking, reflecting, or praising celebrity culture, since he was doing all of the above.

Oh, and by the way. Death sells. It always has.

  Damien Hirst’s sudden embrace of painting coincides with a similar shift on the part of his most famous patron, Charles Saatchi. Last January, the press-shy collector celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his London gallery by mounting a show called “The Triumph of Painting,” relegating his considerable holdings of “Sensation”-era sculpture, installation, and conceptual art to storage. That same month, Saatchi divested himself of Hirst’s shark-in-a-vitrine, purchased in 1992 for $93,000, and sold to hedge-fund manager Stephen Cohen for $13 million.  

Damien Hirst: The Elusive Truth
Gagosian Gallery
555 W. 24th St. Through April 23.

Has Damien Hirst Jumped the Shark?