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<<Back to Issue 2 Volume # 73
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Art Profile: Damien Hirst

By Kevin Choe '08

The British artist, who created a sensation with his $8 million installation of a shark encased in a tank of formaldehyde, is now trying to peddle his $100 million diamond-encrusted skull to that extremely rarefied group of people with eccentric tastes and enormous bank accounts.

If you didn’t already know, the art market is hot right now. Paintings by Modern artists like Rothko and De Kooning are selling for prices usually attached to private jets. Last year, British financier David Martinez paid $140 million for an eight-by-four foot Jackson Pollack. In June of 2006, a Klimt painting sold for $135 million. At these astronomical prices, the price for Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (entitled "For the Love of God") may seem like a bargain at $100 million - it’s a Wal-mart price for billionaires.

Damien Hirst, the not-so-young "Young British Artist," dominated the art world in the 90s with his installations of animals preserved in glass cases filled with formaldehyde. His magnum opus is probably "The Impossibility of Death," which is a freakishly well-preserved 14-foot tiger shark (shown below). As it is apparent, death is the resounding theme throughout Hirst’s works.

Part of a group of conceptual artists called the Young British Artists (or YBA), Hirst has achieved what very few artists have achieved in their lifetimes: financial security. Being the second most expensive living artist after Jasper Johns, Mr. Hirst is far from being the starving artist one imagines when thinking of art. In fact, not only is he financially secure, Hirst has the "disposable income" to spend $33 million on another artist’s work - Francis Bacon’s self-portrait to be exact.

Although there is no doubt on the value of Hirst’s artwork (in terms of money), there is speculation as to whether or not Hirst’s work could be considered art at all and if they are worth the magnanimous prices they command. The Stuckists, a British anti-conceptual art group started by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson in 1999, criticized Hirst’s works by saying that his artworks have no value as they are meaningless and "the primary motivation of such work is not its intrinsic worth but its employment as a commodity and for the celebrity status it brings its manufacturer." Referring to his iconic tiger shark, the Stuckists wrote "A dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde does not address the issue of death: it is just dead. The only possible comment that it makes is that to be dead is like being in a contemporary art gallery. [The installation] purports to address a profound issue but renders its author not an artist but a cumbersome poet with a rather excessive visual aid."

In spite of the criticism, Damien Hirst remains one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He was influential in the "re-branding" of the United Kingdom as "Cool Britannia" (a term used to describe the contemporary culture of the UK in the 90s) and has had an enormous affect on British art. Many of Hirst’s "spin" paintings are on display at MoMA and his "Impossibility of Death" tiger shark is currently on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (for three years), in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for modern and contemporary art.

At the moment, Hirst is trying to sell his diamond skull for $100 million (it cost him $24 million to produce the sculpture). The skull may be the artist’s reaction to the sale of conflict diamonds in Africa or, as Richard Dorment wrote, it could be questioning the "morality of art and money."

Hirst has made a fortune off his art and one wonders if money was or has become his muse. But, more importantly, one begins to question what has happened to the contemporary art world. Has art become nothing more than a market for aesthetic commodities? We may know the price of Hirst’s work, but what is its value?