Damien Hirst at The Wallace Collection

Damien Hirst is a British artist who has become one of the most controversial figures in the contemporary art world. You have probably heard of him, even if you don't pay attention to art. You've probably seen or read about the shark, or the dots paintings. The former is a real shark stored in formaldehyde. I admit, when I saw it at MoMA, I was impressed by its scale and its ominous, dread-inducing qualities. The latter, below at left, aren't even made by the artist. Instead, they are made by his assistants. Now, I recognize that it is often that artists are aided by a whole studio or professional staff (notable examples of this include Jeff Koons and Richard Serra) but these are paintings, not enormous sculptures or free-standing, load bearing sheet metal slabs. These are small canvases with colourful dots arranged in a pattern that evokes, well, nothing at all.

Why am I blogging about Damien Hirst if I find him so overrated? Hirst offers us a unique vantage point from which to examine the larger machine: the artworld itself. Rachel Campbell-Johnston, in this revealing article for the Times, wonders in print what I've wondered for ages and offers an explanation:

The paintings are dreadful. Think Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole. So why are these works now hanging in the Wallace Collection? What are they doing in the home of such masters as Rembrandt or Poussin, Titian or Fragonard?

The answer is simple: they are by Damien Hirst. And his is a name that curators must welcome.
Now scroll up a bit and look at the photo I posted of Hirst with two works currently on show at The Wallace Collection. Do you find them dreadful? In my mind, that isn't the only question that matters. A lot of the art we "enjoy" when visiting a gallery or museum is dreadful. But Hirst's persona has taken on mythical proportions which obscure even some very successful yet poor artists who shall remain unnamed here (this post isn't about my value judgment on other artists). When you consider that he had a capsule collection for Levi's Jeans, has opened a restaurant, and designed Trek bikes for the Tour de France, you wonder whether his art really factors into the whole media shebang.
My read on the whole situation is that it does, but marginally. How did I decide this? Well, I looked at those paintings up there and felt nothing, except a desire to make fun of his hipster glasses and protruding belly instead of look at the paintings. Maybe he should have left these to his studio assistants, too, and saved himself the time. Or maybe I've got him all wrong, and he is indeed an example of the artist as genius.

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