Every photograph of Damien Hirst in recent newspapers has shown the expression of a man affronted by a surge of negative criticism, like that of a reprimanded dog. The defensive frown accompanies a plethora of articles about his ‘mid-career’ retrospective – essentially a tame shrine to the fleeting rise of his ‘90s ‘shock of the new’ art in the warm, safe and tourist-friendly environment of Tate Modern.
As this arts media-dominating show descends on London, Hirst has made the somewhat predictable revelation that he will be opening his very own gallery, Saatchi-style, in 2014. It will show off his impressive collection of work by artists far better than he will ever be, along with some who dwell alongside him in the district of cliched, everyman art, fit to adorn the walls of the rich and oblivious collector who see art as little more than a highly profitable commodity. The gallery, to be built in Vauxhall and designed by architects Caruso St John, will accommodate around 2,000 pieces and will take over an entire street.
As the hype storm gathers around these two momentous events, it is tragically needless to say that Hirst is no longer actually relevant as an artist – a figure at best faintly amusing and at worst deeply embarrassing – and the aggrandising exhibition paradoxically serves to emphasise the absurdity of his ostensible profession. The successful businessman has ceased to create anything significant since the mid-90s; even through his direction to a multitude of industrious employees, Hirst has only managed to re-hash the few pieces that ever had any indication of originality. Once a provocative young artist with a handful of good ideas, he still relies on those works that have now lost any remaining whiff of the subversion that was their main purpose during the golden age of the Young British Artists.
Anything he now (re)produces is doomed to exist in the category of materialism and brash superficiality; as Brian Sewell so acutely observes, ‘to own a Hirst is to tell the world your bathroom taps are gilded and your Rolls Royce is pink.’
Unlike their Modernist predecessors, there is no possibility for artists to be reactionary in the current artworld for the simple reason that there is nothing to react against. Everything is accepted, price-tagged and exhibited for fear of future humiliation when a once rejected artist starts to market, say, crystal-studded skulls for $100 million. And it seems that, upon finding that there was nothing left to react against, Hirst ran out of ideas pretty quickly.
Not forgetting of course his unleashing of ‘Nothing Matters’ in 2009, a series of oil paintings created, unusually, in his own hand. Latching onto Francis Bacon’s portrayal of the isolated figure in a vestigial living room defined by ghostly perimeters, powerfully and viscerally conveying the desolation and ultimate, godless wretchedness of the postwar human condition, Hirst’s public declaration of his admiration for the work of the great twentieth-century painter is executed in much the same way that a child demonstrates their love of helicopters: by drawing them, really, really badly.
While the Tate’s exhibition has effectively hammered the final nail into his coffin as an artist, Hirst continues to unabashedly pursue the life of a mercenary collector-businessman who sells souvenir ‘Spot Cufflinks’ on his own website. As the grinning, Cheshire-cat embodiment of the increasing absurdity of the economy of insecurity that fuels today’s artworld, he at least seems happy watching clueless millionaires fight over his mediocre wares, as he wallows contentedly in their residual swill.