Damien Hirst’s Power to Piss People Off

Damien Hirst posing in front of Minoxidil, 2005 (photo Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images, via guardian.co.uk)

Like most art writers and enthusiasts, I rolled my eyes when I first heard about Damien Hirst’s spotted global Gagosian invasion. However after reading review after opinion piece after review from writers who are completely infuriated by topics that range from the Damien Hirst Complete Spot Challenge to his assistant-made spot paintings to Hirst’s entire body of work, I started thinking maybe the artist’s real artistic strength comes from his unquestionable power to piss people off.

From New York to Hong Kong, all 11 Gagosian galleries are currently exhibiting The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011. Often named after drugs and painted in almost sickeningly vivid colors, the spot paintings range from one to 25,781 spots. While I can’t think of anything more boring than Hirst’s spot paintings, the outrage surrounding the works and their exhibition seems to be way more fascinating and possibly artistically important than the actual work themselves.

The responses in the online press seem to range from bored to calling Hirst a talentless hack to outright seething rage. Much of the anger is coming from Hirst’s production of the paintings, which rely almost entirely on his team of studio assistants. There are rumors that Hirst only personally made five out of the 1,400 spot paintings, which has enraged a whole swathe of the art world, including artist David Hockney, who keeps pointing out his own art is made by himself.

Another of Hirst and Gagosian’s perceived offenses is just how much money has been poured into this exhibition and Hirst’s work. Kathleen Massara, blogging on Huffington Post, called it “an art world takeover by the richest for the richest, with 150 collectors lending their prized pieces to the pot.”

I’m not sure why anyone is surprised by either of these points. Its obvious that Hirst uses an enormous team of assistants, which puts him directly in line with many renowned contemporary artists of today and yesteryear (Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami … ). In addition to these obvious studio assistant-reliant artists, many other artists have a whole slew of assistants to paint their paintings for them.

Similarly, why anyone is surprised that both Hirst and Gagosian cater to the wealthy 1% is beyond me. Besides his obvious diamond-bedazzled skull, I will always associate Hirst with his brazen auction at Sotheby’s right before the economic crash in 2008.

Damien Hirst, "Zirconyl Chloride" (2008), Household gloss on canvas (Courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

The most hysterical, and possibly my favorite, response might come from Will Brand, who seems to selflessly worry about how some imaginary blogger of the future might mistake the utter ridiculousness of this exhibition as historical importance. He writes:

They’ll see that there was a massive show spread across every location of the most successful gallery of the time, entirely comprised of one of the most successful artists of the time, and that it was supported by some of the most illustrious voices money could buy. So I’m going to lay this down, just to clarify, so that nobody from the future gets confused: we hate this shit. Everyone hates this shit. These spots reflect nothing about how we live, see, or think, they’re just some weird meme for the impossibly rich that nobody knows how to stop.

Brand is right. We do hate this shit.

And maybe that’s the point and has always been the point of Hirst’s work all along. Hirst strives to make the audience annoyed, horrified and angered whether its looking at a sawed-in-half calf or at an assistant-made spot painting. The power to make so many people so angry has to be an artistic victory on some level. No matter how fast and fickle the art world seems to be, Hirst seems to have the power to consistently monopolize art world discussion even if it is a negative one.

What is the strength of Hirst’s talent to piss people off? Perhaps if critics and art lovers are so angry because the paintings were made by assistants or that the exhibitions cater to the wealthiest 1%, doesn’t that indicate that Hirst’s works indicate a wider problem with the art world? Even though Hirst, as always, takes things to their extreme, almost decadent limit, the lack of individually artist-made work and the importance of the wealthiest art collectors versus the lowly art viewers are real issues that must be dealt with. Whether Hirst is using the global Gagosian as a forum to point this out or just to infuriate the critics remains to be seen.

At the heart of it, maybe filmmaker John Waters is right when he said, “Isn’t that the job of contemporary art? To infuriate?”

Damien Hirst’s The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011 will be on view in 11 venues in eight cities. For dates and locations, please gagosian.com/spotchallenge.

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