Damien Hirst specializes in gnomic incantations about his work. He produces what art critic Robert Hughes has termed “absurd” and “tacky commodities.” Take his The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living — for Hughes, a tacky, even wacky marine organism, “the world’s most over-rated” shark.

Perhaps one of the most recognisable figures of the art world, Hirst has now taken his war against those commissioning wizards, the art dealers. On Monday, his broadsides were fired at Sotheby’s (the auction was titled “Beautiful Inside my Head Forever”) in London, where the auction house, for the first time, sold new work. There were 223 Hirst lots to be gotten through over two days, and they sold direct to eager punters. The dealers had to look on from the sidelines.

Hirst’s process of exiling the art dealer was modern in another sense. As Jackie Wullschlager of the Financial Times pointed out, his method of “disintermediation” was much like the “way bands sell music, or companies sell stocks, online rather than through record companies and brokers.”

It was always a risk, and the global art dealership were hoping Hirst’s gamble would reap ruinous returns. Some art critics were probably wishing the same. This was far from the case — the art market, if nothing else, gave us Hirst and this collusion with commercial bling. The Sotheby’s auction fetched a handsome £111 million. The Golden Calf, a dead bull suspended in trademark formaldehyde, equipped with golden horns and hooves in gold placed frame, alone sold for £10.3 million.

This was Hirst’s secret: he may be world renowned, but he is not as renowned as Sotheby’s. Most passers-by wouldn’t be able to name a single work by the man, but they would be able to tell you the name of a known auction house. It’s all in the branding. Attributes, or the self-defining spiritual nature of the work in question, are secondary.

Hirst did two things: he struck a blow at the conventional relationship between artist (at least known ones) and dealers of their work; and reaffirmed the commercial force of his name. We might get into more trouble if we assess the artistic merit of what he sold, though the auctioneers had to do their own share of branding. Despite having little clue, one auctioneer on Monday intoned knowingly that, “The quality of the work has really shone through.” The usual meaningless terms followed: “exquisite”, “powerful”. The list goes on. Hirst couldn’t care less. He likes formaldehyde. And cows and sharks.

Art works such as Hirst’s are not merely grand spectacles popularized by dumbfounded critics — they are also assets. The global art market is a huge investment — more so than a collector’s aesthetic pursuit. When the oil assets deplete, Hirst’s formaldehyde-drenched creatures will take the tab and cover the running expenses of the rich, should they ever need them. Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs know this and are rapidly accumulating works of ‘art’ like blue chip stocks.

Hirst has been labeled a clown, a joker rather than a deep-thinking tormented type who is likely to disintegrate in self-doubt and drive off a cliff. But he is the one calling everyone else’s bluff. Andy Warhol, prophet of artistic shallowness, may well have been right: “art is what you can get way with”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey