Damien Hirst’s exhibition at Tate Modern: a reflection of our society?

Cet été, à l’occasion des J.O de Londres, la rétrospective consacrée à l’œuvre, pourtant controversée, de l’artiste Damien Hirst, a été un succès sans précédent pour la Tate Modern Gallery. Ce succès au caractère paradoxal est ancré dans notre société, la société de consommation.


While the Olympics took place in London this summer, the city also offered the tourists cultural entertainment with its “cultural Olympiads”. Damien Hirst, who designed the Union Jack for the closing ceremony, benefited from these Olympiads, since a substantial sample of his 24-year career ran for about six months at the Tate Modern Gallery.

London’s emblematic museum of modern art presented the most visited solo show in the gallery’s history, making a 6-million-pound profit. The most famous works exposed at the Tate were The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living, which is simply a 23-ton box filled with formaldehyde and a dead shark, and A thousand years, a lifeless, fly-covered cow head.

This literally gives the visitors goose bumps. Hirst is said to be obsessed with “recycling life cycles”. But he is evolving and his work is more and more seen as items for the luxury market. As a matter of fact, his works of art are awfully expensive. For example,  For the love of gold is a diamond-covered skull head. The work was originally not meant to be sold but was later bought anyway for fifty million million pounds by a mysterious consortium to which -we later learned- Hirst himself belonged.

With his work and the way he actively develops marketing strategy to promote it, Hirst seems to be telling us something like  “In this consumer society, everything is to be sold and so is Art”. He is actually emblematic of the evolution of contemporary art. Most current artists produce things that are so absurd that their popularity is only the result of speculation. There is a new kind of vicious circle:

  • The artist makes something provocative.
  • Then some financial actor chooses to bet on him/her. They buy his/her work and make his/her promotion.
  • The rate grows.
  • The mass public follows.
  • The artist reaches a point where he/she is the one financing his/her own exhibitions in huge museums. The rate continues to grow.

This way Hirst has become an unaffordable but paradoxically popular artist.

A question which can legitimately be asked is whether or not there is a limit to what we call art. The financial stakes are so huge that art has become utilitarian and the subject is no longer such an important matter. A good salesperson could sell anything and if art is only a way to make money for artists like Hirst, then these artists are no longer artists but salespeople. Hirst’s historical 2008 auction was made without the help of any art dealer and is now taught in business schools all around the world.

Nevertheless, it appears that the reason why institutions such as the Tate Modern Gallery support Hirst, whose exhibition was described in pretty much every art review as a hoax, is simple. They are afraid of repeating the mistakes made at the beginning of the twentieth century with regards to modern art. They wouldn’t forgive themselves if they missed a turning point in art history again.

Lucille COTELLE & Julia SUGIER


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