Damien Hirst is important. He just is. If you know anything about the contemporary art market, you are currently rolling your eyes, and if you know nothing of the sort, you may still know this image. Which says something.
You are rolling your eyes because you are sick of hearing of Hirst and his formaldehyde sharks and his diamond encrusted skulls. You are totally against the bigwigs buying this crap (caution, reader, don't bite the hand that feeds you) and hate that he is overselling Koons, Rothko, Pollock... the real greats. Butterfly paintings!?, you scream... diamonds!? Where does Hirst get off succeeding in this masquerade?
Well. I love Damien Hirst. I am fascinated by him and his flutter of glory and his aura of glittering success. Fascinated. Hirst came onto the contemporary art scene and stormed through its pretension and its careful word-play and demanded top billing. He shows at the best galleries in the world... Larry Gagosian reps him, and so does White Cube back home.
Hirst creates the most bizarre of pieces--I already mentioned the formaldehyde-- next to the most lovely of paintings. Fluttering butterflies, stained glass windows, spinning colors, pleasing dots. Sharks for the jaded moneyman, butterflies for the new collector who still believes in only buying art that speaks to him. (Rubbish, says the Met. We'll take the shark.) Its shocking, its risky, and its bitingly fresh. It's dancing hippos, it's an orchestra of choreographed fountains, it's a parade of gory feathered masks.
Hirst's works proudly accept titles like Beautiful Bleeding Wound Over the Materialism of Money Painting; This Be the Verse Mount Zion; The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living; Lullaby Spring; My Problem is You. He is laughing at us. Laughing at the viewer who dares to read too much into color on canvas, into religious schemes so obviously present when looking at a sheep of any sort. While this is far from the point of his works, it is clear that Hirst enjoys playing. This alone is quite impressive for the wealthiest living artist showing today.
Hirst had an auction last month at Sotheby's in London entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, shocking in its entirety. This auction was unprecedented not only for its scale (223 works!) its commission (dropping your dealer!? Larry!? Whats going on...) its buyers (some random Russian tycoon buying dots for his girlfriend) and its buzz (there is much scandal, gossip, and juice surrounding this auction. Google its title). It was unprecedented for its record breaking sales on the very day the market crashed. This auction took place on September 15th, 2008, just as Lehman filed for bankruptcy. The black news broke hours before Hirst's auction commenced, worrying Sotheby's to the extent that they began offering layaway payments for potential buyers.
Yet the first session’s total was $127.2 million, above the high estimate of $112 million. And if you know nothing of auctions, know that overselling the high estimate rarely happens. Unless you're Damien Hirst. Damien Hirst, who competely dropped his dealers and sold his works independently through Sotheby's. This. Doesn't. Happen. Damien Hirst, who recently declared that he is never painting butterflies again. That he is done with stained glass windows. Translation: get 'em while they're hot. This hasn't happened in the art world unless the artist suddenly died. Think about how much easier it would have been for Van Gogh and his poor ear had he just stated that he was no longer painting stars and streetlights. Hirst is completely limiting his retrospective so that he doesn't flood his own market. Smarty.
So. Say what you will. And even if you can't gain energy from auctions and records and sales, if you are still in the school of thought preserving art-for-art's-sake... pay attention to this conceded, hot-headed, poetic Brit. There is good to be found in his diamonds, some value in his sharks.