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Not many artists divide opinion quite like Damien Hirst and, in this respect, the show in Tate Modern at the moment does not disappoint. Many critics have looked unfavourably upon it, or upon Hirst, in particular. Everyone’s favourite old art codger, Brian Sewell, unsurprisingly, can’t bear it, “this man’s imagination,” he writes, “is quite as dead as all the dead creatures here suspended in formaldehyde”. Even established broadsheet Lefties like the Guardian and the Observer don’t really enjoy themselves.

But some are more favourable, none more so than The Telegraph’s Andrew Graham-Dixon who awards the show five stars (out of five, just to clarify) and Rachel Campbell-Johnson of the Times, four stars.

For me, whenever I see his work or I read or hear people’s opinions of him, positive or negative, it evokes the same expression of emotion from me. Creeping across my face will forever be a smile. I’m not the only one. Watching the other exhibition attendees, they’re smiling too. They point to the vitrine with the severed cow’s head (A Thousand Years, 1990) decaying with flies and maggots, and with a grin, whisper to a friend about how disgusting it is. The vitrines (glass cages) serve to detach us from the fairly gross, but true, cyclical nature of what is happening inside them – in this case – being born, eating, breeding and dying. Without the vitrine, I don’t think anyone would be smiling; such would be the stench more than anything else.

1000 years

When people smile it can be for a variety of reasons: most obviously because it’s a reflex reaction after something has stimulated their amusement, and Hirst’s achieves exactly that. There’s nothing remotely difficult to understand about the meaning of his work. There are no subtle undercurrents; in fact, all his currants are on the top of the bun, with icing. Death, death, death – yes, we can see you’re death-obsessed, Damien. What, I think, we find amusing is how his works have been so influential and how they continue to drive such high prices in the art market despite him being so open about his lack of physical involvement with them and his famous statement from the mid-Nineties, “I can’t wait to be in a position to make really bad art and get away with it”. Of course he enjoys a good joke with us, almost his entire career has been a joke aimed at self-righteousness in the art world.

One of my favourite explanations of Hirst’s success can be seen in the satirical comic Viz, where two self-righteous art critics, Natasha and Crispin Critic can be seen commenting at various pivotal moments throughout the career of Danny Tyke (A.K.A. Mr Hirst):

The Critics

© John Fardell, Viz Comic, 2010

Later in the strip we see a reference to Hirst’s Spin Paintings (on display in Room 8 of the exhibition), where the Critics can be seen viewing Tyke’s Vomit Spirals 1-3 with £500,000 price tags, of which Natasha Critic says “Oh yes! By getting his team of studio assistants to vomit onto turntables to make swirly round random patterns of sick, young artist Danny Tyke has pioneered a daring new form of artistic expression, reinventing the whole concept of art for our age.”

To which Tyke replies “Obviously, I’m too busy with my accountant to do the vomiting myself, but it’s my concept, so all the pieces are authentic Danny Tykes”.

Watching the video of Hirst walking round the Tate Modern exhibition with curator Ann Gallagher, it’s uncannily similar to the Viz cartoon. It’s as if he can hardly be arsed to be there.

mother and child (divided)

When looking at one of his seminal masterpieces, Mother and Child (Divided) 1993,  “Were you consciously alluding to Christianity when you talked about the title being Mother and Child?” asks Gallagher.

“I mean Christianity, I don’t know about… I mean I was brought up as a Catholic till I was 12, all that stuff goes in there, but it’s difficult to, I mean I wasn’t directly. I wanted to sort of play with the view that if somebody says to me, ‘Is that religious?’ I’d be saying, ‘Well, what do you think?’”

Pfffffttt. What a farty load of arse.

And talking of a farty load of arse, “I did have an idea to do a huge bronze human shit”, he admits to Elizabeth Day from The Guardian, “40ft long, and call it ‘Untitled – No 2’.”

How can you not be amused by Damien Hirst?

Is he a genius? Despite the word’s overuse, of course he is – an artistic genius (shut up Sewell!) driven by entrepreneurial acumen. He has benefited from a fair amount of luck and good timing over his career; Mr Saatchi’s initial leg-up and the record-breaking £111m Sotheby’s sale, days before the 2008 recession, being most significant. But, as the saying goes, you make your own luck, and he heads an art and business empire that dominates the contemporary scene, rubbing his fiscal success in the face of his doubting critics, most visibly with his skull, For the Love of God (2007), encrusted with £50m worth of diamonds. Its open mouth laughs mockingly at both those who criticise him and, paradoxically, those who buy his work. The two fuel each other.

for the love of god

Critics can talk about how Hirst hasn’t come up with a decent new idea in over twenty years, and they’d be right, but they miss the point entirely. He’s reached his career goal of making bad art and getting away with it, and he’s happily now taking the piss, as anyone who saw his paintings in the Wallace Collection in 2009 will testify (although disappointingly they’ve been left out of this exhibition). If there was only one real disappointment with the exhibition, it’s that there wasn’t a surprise 40ft bronze shit at the end. Instead you just have to make do with a formaldehyde dove.

[Many thanks to TP guest writer, Daisy Bell, for sneaking me into the show’s preview]

By Edward Lines