At the business end of the arts world

 

Damien HirstTate Modern, Bankside, London until September 9th. Tate.org

STRICTLY SPEAKING, the visual arts don’t feature as an event in the Olympics, but Britain has lined up a representative for this year’s games in London all the same. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it’s Damien Hirst, whose heralded retrospective, just opened at Tate Modern, runs until September 9th. Hirst is always big box office, and his reign at Tate also coincides with Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee celebrations in June.

Hirst is by far the most bankable and reputedly the wealthiest artist of his generation. His estimated worth is in excess of £200 million, something that, he has readily acknowledged, probably wouldn’t have happened without the influence of his business manager, Portrane-born Frank Dunphy. Dunphy became involved with Hirst in 1995 (he was previously a showbiz accountant), when the artist was flummoxed by a substantial tax demand.

Since then Dunphy has masterminded several of Hirst’s major financial coups, including two crucial auctions: the Pharmacy auction in 2004, which brought in £11 (€14) million, and the Sotheby’s auction of 2008, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. Incredibly, the latter coincided with the spectacular collapse of Lehman Brothers, the event that signalled global financial crash, but Hirst’s auction bucked the trend to take in a staggering £111 (€140) million.

More, it redrew the conventional demarcation lines in the contemporary art market, bringing a huge quantity of brand new works, 244 in all, directly to auction and hence by-passing Hirst’s two dealers, Jay Jopling of White Cube and Larry Gagosian.

Both reputedly take a great deal less than the average 50 per cent commission on sales of his work – another sign of Dunphy’s business acumen and Hirst’s bargaining power.

Not that he didn’t have an entrepreneurial streak to begin with. He organised the 1988 warehouse exhibition Freeze that put himself and his fellow Goldsmiths students on the map. It attracted the attention of Charles Saatchi, who presumably enjoyed spotting the next big thing ahead of the art-world professionals, and whose support helped establish Hirst et al as the Young British Artists.

It’s impossible to talk about Hirst without talking about money. As Andy Warhol, with whom he is often reasonably compared, put it: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art . . . good business is the best art.” In monetary terms, Dunphy once told Hirst: “An artwork is only worth what the next guy is going to pay for it.”

As a business artist in the Warholian sense, with more than a little help from Dunphy, Hirst is certainly touching on genius. But what does his retrospective say about him as an artist if we disregard the business dimension, forgetting for a moment about market value? Alas, it is virtually impossible to separate a viable artistic vision from the overriding concerns with branding and marketing that dominate the form and substance of what’s on view at Tate, from the diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, enthroned in theatrical seclusion off the Turbine Hall, to the endless spot paintings (1,400 and counting) that segue into butterfly wallpaper patterns upstairs.

If there ever was a tussle between art values and business values in Hirst’s soul, it didn’t last long.

David Hockney couldn’t resist a jibe at him because he pays other people to make his work. That’s not really a problem. Look at Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve in the Courtauld Institute not that far away and you’ll see that it is one of an estimated 50 versions of the painting turned out by the artist’s busy studio, involving many assistants, and that was nearly 500 years ago. But Hirst’s problem, and his genius, is that his spot paintings are consciously contrived to be products that can be presented as individual artworks within the letter but certainly outside the spirit of any law of creativity. And what’s missing is what he supposedly prides himself on: concept.

This is increasingly and consistently apparent as one progresses through the exhibition. Hirst’s ideas, notionally the engine of his art, are very simple. In a sense that’s fine, of course, but straightforward, very obvious motifs are relentlessly reiterated. His favoured symbols of mortality, transience, death and decay – cigarette butts, flies living and dead, preserved animal specimens, butterflies living and dead, pills and other pharmaceuticals, surgical implements – are served up over and over and over again. The symbolism is never subtle. Within one or two works the ideas might resonate. But you get the point first time, it’s the only point, and the staggering level of repetition grates.

The conventional wisdom on Hirst is that his reputation rests on his earlier, ground-breaking work, and his more recent production has succumbed to rampant commodification, the actual art objects now being nothing more than a means of embodying and marketing the Hirst brand.

In fact, many of the earlier pieces assembled for the Tate are looking alarmingly tired. The hapless shark, for example, cuts a sad, slightly dilapidated figure, even though it’s not even the original shark, but a replacement drafted in when the first began to disintegrate. Other works look unnecessarily heavyhanded, engaging massive logistics to minuscule effect.

None of which will bother Hirst. He’s in the art business and he’s brilliant at it. When he ventured further afield, making a group of paintings – that is, painting them himself – for exhibition at the Wallace Collection in 2009, it turned out to be a false step. They came across as weak parodies of Francis Bacon and none of them feature in the retrospective. Neither that, nor the oft-noted failure to sell the diamond-encrusted skull for its asking price of $100 (€76) million (in the end a consortium, including the artist, was put together to fund it) takes away from his achievement.

For legions of fans and admirers, including those who could never afford one of his works as well as the monied who buy him for reasons of social status and the hedge-fund managers who speculate on contemporary art, Hirst is the artist of choice.

The critic Julian Spalding attracted attention recently when he wrote a piece (based on his just-published online book, Con Art) asserting that Hirst is not an artist at all and that those who own his works, “the sub-prime of the art world”, should sell them because they are worthless.

The market could turn against Hirst, but it doesn’t look particularly likely, and he’s as much an artist as anyone. Spalding may disapprove of him, but chances are many thousands of people will visit and enjoy his retrospective. They’ll see the iconic works, marvel at the scale, buy the mugs and the T-shirts and they won’t feel conned or short-changed. Hirst’s work is not hard to understand, as is a great deal of conceptual art. It’s conceptual lite. That may annoy some people, but dissension and controversy are grist to Hirst’s mill.

As Warhol put it, don’t worry what they print about you, just measure the column inches.