Damien Hirst, currently the highest-earning contemporary artist, shocked the art world recently by making the revolutionary decision to sell his latest works directly through the auction house.
It’s not the first time he’s stirred up controversy. Hirst makes no secret of the fact that he has a workshop of artists to produce his many weird and wonderful creations – but then, why should he? For as long as art has been recognised as an industry, masters have had assistants to aid the rate of production of their work. Is this, in essence, any different? The focus of modern art today seems to lie not so much in the actual manufacture of the works, but rather the concept behind it. One would hardly be able to present such a saleable collection of works by simply employing a group of young artists to come and work in an empty workshop; there needs to be a driving force, which the artist’s concept provides.
I spoke to one employee of Hirst’s business enterprise, Science Ltd., who seemed quite content to have what is essentially his own work sold under another’s name, regardless of the price it was sold for, and even seemed to regard the whole experience as a privilege. Surely one could become slightly bitter about the whole situation, when something they have done most of the work for is being sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, suggesting that perhaps it is just his branding that makes these pieces sell like proverbial hot cakes.
As I walked around his latest collection, entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, there was a sense of being inside a shop, with his signature spot paintings seemingly purchasable in every colour under the sun. In fairness, that is, to all intents and purposes, what an auction house is: a place where items are bought and sold. But the fact that an overwhelming majority of these works were sold to first time buyers at Sotheby’s gives us the impression that they are now predominantly considered to be sound investments at a time when little else is. They are the latest commodity of the über wealthy.
I can’t help but wonder whether Damien is actually just having a laugh at the expense of the entire art market. There certainly is a sense of irony in the millions of pounds he will receive for work that in many ways serves to critique the pursuit or idolisation of material wealth. In this most recent collection, The Golden Calf (yet another of Hirst’s formaldehyde-pickled animals) is a Biblically-inspired reference to exactly that. Hirst’s entrepreneurial approach is pretty transparent here, making him an easy target for criticism, but you’ve got to admit that where contemporary art is concerned, he’s got vision.
XEROX Issue 3