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Damien Hirst: Artist as Business Strategist

Michael Skapinker, Financial Times
Friday, 13 Apr 2012 | 5:00 PM ET
"The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" by Damien Hirst.
Spurce: damienhirst.com
"The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" by Damien Hirst.

Damien Hirst is the greatest living, and possibly the greatest ever, moneymaker-as-artist. MBA teachers get their students to analyse his business strategy. But what business is he in?

As I strolled through his new retrospective at London’s Tate Modern gallery, I identified four.

Showman

A striking number of young families come to see Hirst’s work. Unlike in the National Gallery, or even in the rest of Tate Modern, you don’t see parents at this show distracting their children with pieces of paper on which they have to tick off the number of cats they can see. Nor do you hear the kids asking how much longer they have to stay.

There is too much entertainment for that. They can watch a ping-pong ball suspended above a blowing hairdryer, or sniff a giant ashtray of discarded cigarettes (a smell once familiar; less so today), or let butterflies tickle their ears.

My first thought was that this placed Hirst in the line of great circus impresarios. But as visitors walked through the bisected cow and watched flies consume a severed animal’s head and immolate themselves, it struck me that Hirst is truer to the tradition of the Victorian freak show.

Adman

Sarah Kent, a critic who appears on the exhibition’s handheld video, said of Hirst’s display: “It works like advertising.”

That is true. There are some advertisements that shock and stir controversy, or sum up an era, and then lodge in the collective memory. Some are crudely straightforward, such as Wonderbra’s “Hello boys” ad. Others are redolent of heroic times, such as the US government’s Rosie the Riveter poster, summoning women to patriotic work during the second world war. I suspect Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde will be remembered long after it and he have gone. It is striking, illustrates the idea of art as a talking point, and will always be an advertisement for himself.

Luxury brand manager

Hirst’s work is expensive because a moneyed group of people has agreed that it should be. A striking number of his buyers are luxury goods companies and their leaders whose success depends on similar elite approbation.

Their interest in the artist is evident at his exhibition. The Prada collection and the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, the planned Frank Gehry-designed gallery in Paris, both lent their Hirsts to the Tate. François Pinault, the French luxury goods magnate, is a keen Hirst collector.

Luxury brands need loving care. Fakes and counterfeits can undermine them. Maintaining the aura requires constant vigilance.

Some luxury watchmakers and jewelers attempt to put their offerings’ status beyond doubt by smothering them in diamonds. Hirst’s “For the Love of God”, a platinum cast of an 18th-century skull, on display in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is covered with 8,601 diamonds, including a large one in the center of its forehead.

The use of diamonds to ensure luxury goods are seen as such is wonderfully self-referential. Diamonds, too, are valuable because those who own and covet them have an interest in considering them valuable, a trick that is easier to maintain when they are kept relatively scarce, as the great De Beers men Cecil Rhodes and Harry Oppenheimer understood.

Cutting diamonds is a highly developed skill. So is making luxury watches. Craft underlies most luxury brands. Some might allege that is not true of Hirst’s work. More important, luxury brands take themselves seriously. It is not clear that Hirst does. One of his circular colour works carries this description on the Tate wall: “Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over-simplistic, throw away, kids’ stuff, lacking in integrity?.?.?.?” Perhaps Hirst suspects the ping-pong ball will not stay in the air forever. This leads us to his fourth business.

Trader

In September 2008 Hirst became the first important artist to dispense with dealers or galleries and sell his work in a Sotheby’s auction. Buyers spent £111m just as Lehman Brothers went bust. Since then, his prices have not only fallen; they have underperformed the contemporary art market, according to data from Art Market Research.

There may be better artists, but there are not many traders who have so exquisitely called the top of the market.





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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.