Some artists prefer not to talk about the value of their work. Damien Hirst clearly revels in it, going so far as to call art “the greatest currency in the world.”
On the eve of Hirst’s first major retrospective in his native Britain, he hit back at a leading critic who dismissed him as a conman and advised anyone owning his work to sell it fast.
Julian Spalding, a curator and critic who has just written a short book called Con Art — Why You Ought to Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can, went on the attack last week with articles in at least two national newspapers.
They were designed to coincide both with the release of his book and the opening this week of an exhibition at Tate Modern tracing Hirst’s journey from a student at Goldsmiths College, London, to the world’s most commercially successful living artist.
Spalding questioned whether Hirst, known for his shark suspended in formaldehyde, a diamond-encrusted skull, spot paintings and medicine cabinets, was an artist at all and described his works, which fetch millions at auction, as “worthless financially.”
Hirst, speaking on Monday to a small group of journalists at the Tate Modern gallery overlooking the river Thames, was clearly used to such jibes and brushed Spalding’s criticism aside with a grin.
“It’s like, you say ‘sell your Hirst.’ I say ‘don’t sell your Hirsts, hang on to them.’ If you look at the numbers ...
“It’s always healthy to have both views — people love it, people hate it. I once said as long as they spell my name right I don’t mind. As I’ve got older I don’t really mind if they spell my name right either.
“Andy Warhol said that great thing didn’t he? ‘Don’t read your reviews, weigh them.’”
SMELL OF DECAY AND MONEY
The fact that Hirst quoted Warhol was hardly surprising — both artists have been commercially canny and saw the value of their works as inextricably linked to the art itself.
Hirst’s spot paintings, for example, are made by employees and untouched by the artist, a fact that did not prevent them becoming status symbols for the rich and famous.
The artist has come to embody the spirit of 1990s London where his works, often given intriguing titles, appealed to hedge fund managers and oligarchs as well as an art world clamoring for new ideas.
Championed early on by collector Charles Saatchi, Bristol-born Hirst personifies conspicuous consumption, yet the 46-year-old, with a fortune estimated at over US$320 million, insisted that the art came first.
“I’m one of those lucky artists that makes money in their lifetime, and makes lots of money,” he said. “I’m not afraid of that but I think the goal’s always been to make art and not money. Making money is a by-product, a very happy by-product.
“I think art’s the greatest currency in the world. Gold, diamonds, art — I think they are equal ... I think it’s a great thing to invest in.”
The show itself focuses on some of Hirst’s most important early works with a view to putting his later series into context.
The first spot painting, for example, was made in 1986 and, instead of the precise grid of equally spaced, equally sized circles of different hues comes a slap-dash affair with paint dripping down a canvas of rows of irregular shapes.
Two years later Hirst conceived and curated the Freeze exhibition of his work and that of fellow students, an early and important step towards establishing him as the leading figure in the influential “Young British Artists” (YBA) movement.