Damien Hirst: what does a fish in a tank say?


What does a fish say in a tank? “How do you drive this damn thing?” 

Charles Saatchi


“Tanks for that! I want the shark I was promised! 


Stephen Cohen, claiming rights for The

Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living


“Making art, good art, is always a struggle. It can make you happy when you pull it off. There's no better feeling. It's beauteous. But it's always about hard work and inspiration and sweat and good ideas.”

Damien Hirst


ekrana 2022-09-07 v 15-21-02 Image


If you ever heard questions like “Why does a pine tree cut in three pieces constitute an artwork?” or “What do you mean Malevich's white square? How do I get paid $85 000 000 for exhibiting a blank A4 sheet of paper?” you probably wondered what a neophyte would have to say about Damien Hirst’s work.


“What the...”


Hirst is rightfully one of the most talked about painters of today, which he seems to have used very well to gain publicity while having fun along the way too.

Imagine the stress when your shark you’ve already sold to your client starts to go sour and you have to feverishly go fishing for a new one quickly. That gives rise to hundreds if not thousands of pages of debates in some of the biggest media outlets in the world:


“If you sell your client art and then replace it with another piece, is that of equal value?”,


“Was Hirst trying to illustrate the impermanence of our image of death?”


“What if metaphorically we’re all sharks in tanks of our society’s superimposed moral restraints, and when we die, our legacies will decompose and be rejected by our children? What a euphemism!”.


And that creates a whole new direction in art based on a premise that we should question everything because something in our society smells fishy.


Is that really how art is supposed to work?


No, seriously, what does it all mean?


Where’s the hard work? While Takashi Murakami had 3 degrees which he studied 12 hours a day for, then painted 18 hours a day, with some of Hirst's pieces, you wonder if he just stepped on them in his backyard and brought them to work by accident.


You might wonder whether putting a fish in a tank requires a lot of sweat and struggle, or why Damien Hurst hired assistants to do Herculean amounts of work for him, if this is the motto, but, as always with art, there’s more beneath the surface.


For one, maybe here’s why Hirst’s artwork tends to be so provocative:


“I have always been aware that you have to get people listening before you can change their minds. Any artist's big fear is being ignored, so if you get into a debate, that's great.”


“Yes” - We hear the suspicious reader cry out - “But there has to be a meaning after you attracted their attention”.


That is the sine qua non of all metrics we use to measure art objectively. What do Hirst’s works really mean? Or do they mean anything? Does Hirst quietly chuckle at his collectors behind closed doors when he comes home after selling a broken coat hanger for millions, claiming it’s the freshest dashing interpretation by cubists of Kafka’s late dive into minimalism?


“It’s very, erm, minimalistic, I mean effing look at it”


Damien Hirst


A master of art or of provocateurism?


“I can't wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say "f off". But after a while you can get away with things.”


Hirst’s art was heavily criticized by puritans and his work was vehemently attacked by animal rights activists, which didn’t really stop him from opening his own art gallery and closing more deals with every passing decade. Which makes sense: whether he has expertise or not, the more The Guardian writes about him, the more publicity he gets, and thus the revenue goes up:


“Guardians of “real art” and highbrow defenders of the avant garde routinely nestle together under the same duvet, shocked not so much by the paintings and sculptures and installations he churns out at an extraordinary rate as by his refusal to accept that the time has come to keep his creations, like his penis, decently out of sight.”


This inevitably means we’ll be seeing more of Hirst than we want to, so our hope is that somehow we’ll find a deeper meaning in his work, which will make things much more pleasant for everyone (especially for viewers who, as Hirst insisted on, would need to smell the dead cow).


So ultimately the question is: is there any substance and expertise behind Hirst’s work?


Hirst himself provides a clue to the answer in one of his interviews by comparing art to “touching skin..there’s a sensuality to art”.


There’s another hint in one of his more famous (and expensive) sculptures called “For the Love of God”: a human skull with diamond studs that looks unusually cheerful.


His friends, who called him “a hooligan and an aesthete”, pointed out, along with his fascination with death, a stark passion for living:


“Very funny, always up for fun and doing outrageous things, I couldn’t keep up really. You’d get a phone call from Damien saying he’s in a skip, come and join him for a drink”.


In his later work, Hirst also describes a canvas as a way of escaping “the guy in the room”:


“It’s like, in art, everything is a celebration. Because if you really think about death, it makes you inactive.””


Could it be that Hirst’s work, the best example of which could very well be “For The Love Of God”, is a testament to the never-ending, sometimes seemingly pointless, but nevertheless relentless joy of life?


Flies feverishly circling a dead cow’s head attest to life still going on even though sometimes it seems like it’s all over.


Butterflies drowning in paint: what a spectacular way to represent the lightning-fast explosion that is the time of our lives!


Even as a shark in a tank starts to decompose, it can quickly be replaced with another one, although for a minute it may seem like it’s all over.


Here’s something to take away from Hirst’s work, a life lesson worth paying $50 000 000 for:

It’s not over til it’s over. And it’s not over after that.


Artessere is very happy to report that Hirst’s Britannia Street Natural History exhibit opened on March 9th in London.





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