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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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Emily Colucci

Emily Colucci is a recently graduated NYU interdisciplinary Master's student with a focus on art history and gender/sexuality studies. Her interests lie in graffiti, street art and New York-based art from...

31 replies on “Damien Hirst’s Power to Piss People Off”

  1. Well said! I really enjoyed this piece especially because I was at this opening last night. I wonder sometimes if being “infuriating” is the prerogative of the male artist, at least on this kind of scale. All in all it seems like a colossal waste of space.

  2. Emily,

    I don’t think Will Brand is being hysterical in relation to the scope of Hirst’s exhibition and his claim to being the most important artist of our time.  It’s impossible not recognize that claim by anyone who fills 11 Gagosian galleries around the globe simultaneously with anything; spots, piles of gold shit, naked performers, iPad paintings done by hand, toxic grains of rice…whatever.  I think Will’s comment is representative of the 99.99% of Western Civilization that doesn’t own or give a shit about the Spot Paintings.  As a response, Will’s response is perfectly delivered and why its also my favorite so far. 

    Unfortunately, I feel like you’re giving #SHARKFACE a critical intention that his previous work, actions, statements, and general attitude only imply.  He’s not satirizing his own value or influence, nor providing the framing devices to give critics an entry point to say “Hirst is trying to tell us that part of the problem with contemporary art must be with the collectors who bought these and willing loaned them out for what amounts to a 1% response to OWS, a giant ‘Fuck You’ to the rest of the world.”  Really, he’s just given us spectacle of what it looks like to concentrate so much economic wealth and symbolic value in the hands of the few (well, two people; Damien Hirst and Larry Gagosian) that is very difficult to ignore.  Plus, based on the length of Roberta Smith’s New York Times Review alone, every spot painting should increase in value nicely.  Having some experience with simultaneously boring and infuriating people, it’s very clear to me that the art world isn’t very good at differentiating between satire and genuine art world assholery.  In this case, I think you’re making Hirst out to be a better artist than he has become inured under mountains of cash, real estate, and celebrity isolation.  I think the most telling point of this is that the only people who aren’t bored, pissed, or infuriated are the collectors who bought this shit, so I think he fails the John Waters litmus test badly.  If one irate collector speaks out or the spots flood auction and hemorrhage value, then we’ll know maybe he succeeded.   Hell, he didn’t really even piss you off.  

    It’s not so much infuriating as it is deeply sad about how this period of art, symbolized by Hirst’s global victory march, will be represented in the history books.  I hope the next chapter is about the revolution that followed…and how challenging it is 2212 to find any spot paintings or, for example, luxury condos next to housing projects.    

    Cheers,

    William  

    1. Dear William,

      If you read carefully, I also think Will Brand’s response is my favorite. 

      While I honestly hate the spot paintings and can’t think of a more
      boring show, I do find the issues that it raises interesting for
      discussion. 

      I think the main issue you have with the article is the importance of the artist’s intent. I’m not sure we can necessarily know what Damien Hirst’s goal is with the spot paintings nor do I even care. A piece of art can be understood in countless different ways that are separate from the artist’s concrete goal. Just look at how many varied art historical papers are published on a single work of art.

      I’d also like to note that not being able to discern genuine art world
      assholery and satire might say more about the quality of the satire than
      the level of art world douchebaggery.

      That being said, I don’t agree that this points to the terrible place we are with art.  Yes Damien Hirst sucks and yes there are a bunch of other blue chip artists that also suck. But there are a ton of artists who I love that are changing the art world for the better who I have no doubt will go down more favorably in the history books than Damien Hirst.

      Best,

      Emily

    2. I could not agree more: ” the art world isn’t very good at differentiating between satire and genuine art world assholery.”

      Will Brand’s article was a rare moment of clarity for the art world. Being annoying to the art world or to artists in general is a low bar to qualify as a great artist.

      Regarding the money spent on the dots: it is not irrelevant. The insider irony is not  profound or especially clever, it is self-serving and pandering. The art world is making no relevant response to our economic and social crisis with vigor or insight ( inserting the word ‘Occupy’ into some event titles isn’t enough). The face of the art world we see is the ugly smirk of a lobbyist or CEO who is cashing out without adding value.

  3. Emily, I think you hit the nail on the head that part of the Hirst magic is the resentment he conjures. William, I agree with you that Hirst is spectacle and wealth signs. The bottom line is that Hirst does not live in the real world anymore. Anything he makes is suddenly worth more than its weight in gold like he’s got some midas touch. And we all know how well that worked out for King Midas in the end. There is something deeply unsettling and revolting about this midas status. But this revulsion can actually make us want to look more. For more on this contraction, get your dose of Plato http://harpers.org/archive/2009/10/hbc-90006008

  4. I’m intrigued that there’s so much concern over how we’ll look to those in the future.  It illustrates how helpless we feel today at these art establishments and at the banal work these systems encourage.

    I doubt there’s much we can do to prevent sales of such work.  “A fool and his money are soon parted.”  The best thing we can do, if we want to improve our current situation, is encourage artwork that does something more.

    Seeing all the energy that goes into these Hirst articles (and responses) becomes as repetitive as…well…dots.

  5. I don’t know… it seems like the fashionable thing is to hate Damien Hirst. And the frustrating thing was to stand in front of the paintings last night and watch the spots pop out of and recede into the white canvas. And to try to stop the urge to check for repeated colors or equal spacing or patterns. Especially since following these thoughts resulted in further visual effects from the spots. Despite the show being a BIT over-publicized (harhar), I was surprised that there were actual visual effects going on- more than can be said for a lot of art. And maybe the discontent over their construction IS the conceptual part. And I find it hard not to draw parallels to modern life in that. Not saying the work is worth the pricetags, but maybe he’s just not an artist’s artist. That’s OK. Edgy outsider artists need things to rebel against. Only things considered this generally repulsive can and have spark(ed) the subsequent revolution…

  6. Hirst is a lot like Michael Bay. A predilection for garishness and petulance certainly, but a derided figure primarily because he is so accommodating of his industries most course and thoughtless whims.

    In either instance you are talking about a figure at the centre of a bloated lucrative global industry, that has lost sight of whatever ideals we mortals still judge it by, and so regularly engages in practices which disgust us. So when their opulent stunts get a rise out of us, it is not because the artist is engaged in some grand self-deprecating act of corporate funded subversion, but because we are all already angry at a culture that accomadates such things.

    This makes Hirst’s own contribution to any conversation which surrounds him, and any greater inherent value that conversation itself might have, about on a par with Peter Sellers’ character in Being There. Which is to say none. We (that is, Emily) impose our own complex reading on his hapless gurning face, because the alternative is to face how hopeless it would be if this wasn’t all just some horrible capitalist inevitability.

    The Gagosian meanwhile, I have always rather likened to the M+M store. There’s one in every major city, but just the one, and it has a certain guilty allure – but it’s basically just a concessionary stand. So it’s a good home for the spots.

  7. Every one, don’t get your knickers in a twist.
    Remember those cast bronze beer cans in the pop era?

  8. Hirst is the Kim Kardashian of the art world. Infuriated by him?  Not hardly. Just embarrassed by all my fellow human beings who think he’s a worthwhile distraction.

    Perhaps Mr. Hirst could try rearranging his palette slightly and then he would actually produce something useful if not exactly original:

    http://www.ironicsans.com/images/ishi-left.jpg

  9. Emily,

    I did read clearly, and I noted that I found Will’s comment to ‘also be my favorite’.  It was clear you enjoyed it, hysterical or not.  We agree on a lot, and I’m not going to argue for or against my own attempts at satire, but I can’t attribute any such attempt at mockery or satire to Hirst.  I think he’s as sincere as Marina Abramovic in her increasingly tone-deaf attempts at making her audience aware of their privileged positions.  Hirst isn’t holding up a mirror for the art world to see its market distorted reflection in, he’s checking out his purple sunglasses and cap in it.  

    I still think that your observation that “Hirst strives to make the audience annoyed” doesn’t hold up when he fails to infuriate such an important part of his audience, the wealthiest 1% or collectors.  His work has been divisive along the established fault lines of the art world, and as some others have started to notice, a lot of people think they are fun and cheery.  I’m not talking about critics or most artists I know, but the general public.  You don’t have to know much about art to appreciate their limited formal appeal and the ambition of the statement.  They are really big-assed paintings, especially at the flagship store on 21st.  
    As Guy Richards Smit’s character Rod Verplank has said, one of the keys to commercial success as an artist is “endless variations on a single idea.”  It’s too bad this is such a simple idea. Despite our shared knowledge that the art world has far greater depth than the Hirst, Koons, Murakami trifecta of aught stars, this is the kind of exhibition that buries the really interesting work being done.  I’d say that since our conversation is being dominated by the spots, we’re both doing all the interesting art we know a disservice, even in defense of it, by continuing this conversation.  

    Thanks for responding and I value your thoughts even if I disagree with your interpretation of the possible value of Hirst’s statement, but I’m going to respectfully stop here.   

    -Best,

    WIlliam

    1. William

      Thanks for sparking all this. In my view, the conversation should be continued.I don’t necessarily mean here, but the conversation in general is vital to the art world. If we don’t ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” now and then, we never get to what’s right.

      Steve C.

  10. Somebody is laughing all the way to the bank…and that person doesn’t even have to make his own art anymore.

  11. Nope. Massively missing the point here. It doesn’t matter whether Damien Hirst’s paintings suck. What’s really sad is the amount of space given over to the subject. There’s a ton of good art out there in the wide world. The fact that critics constantly foam at the mouth about this non-issue just shows how out of touch with the culture they are. Questions about what art is are irrelevant (and have been ever since that has-been Duchamp). What matters is work that deals with life (in any manner or style it chooses), and manages to hold our attention for more than thirty seconds. 

  12. I remember reading Hirst say something along the lines of “no architect lays the bricks to his buildings” and I think that is why the rich get him. They think and tell people what to do all day for a living. They physically do very little. It translates for them.

  13. It never ceases to depress me about the human condition that the worst artists get all the press coverage. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” (William Butler Yeats)What a waste of everything! 

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