The Tate Modern gallery in London unveiled its summer blockbuster exhibition last week—a retrospective of Damien Hirst, the infamous “Young British Artist” whose work shook up the art scene in the 1990s.
All of Hirst’s most famous works are here, from his 1991 shark suspended in formaledhyde (pretentiously entitled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”) to the diamond encrusted skull that allegedly sold for £50 million in 2007.
Judging from the crowds last week, the show is a hit. Children in particular loved it, running around pointing at the grotesque objects on display and gurgling in mock disgust.
There was a ten minute queue to see 1991’s “In and Out of Love”, which features live butterflies growing out of canvases. There was even a queue to file through the inside of the preserved cow in 1993’s “Mother and Child Divided”.
Hirst’s show has divided the critics. Some have praised it as a long overdue recognition of Hirst as a “serious artist”. Others have reacted with fury, penning screeds denouncing Hirst as a fraud.
In truth Hirst deserves neither judgement. The arguments that he shouldn’t really be considered an artist are just retreads of arguments used to denounce the pioneering modernists such as Marchel Duchamp or the Dada movement.
But it’s also clear from the show that as an artist Hirst isn’t all that. His signature themes—decay, medicine, domesticity—are never further developed from his early work in the late 1980s.
Hirst’s trajectory parallels that of New Labour. He started off full of promise as a savvy and ambitious player with a populist touch. But as the years go by his work becomes less effective and more obsessed with money and religion.
His most recent works are blinged up recreations of his glory days, fashioned out of gold and gemstones to be flogged off at auction to the rich and tasteless. The exhibition shop, fittingly, is incorporated into a gallery room at the end.
The Tate has certainly put together a fun show that has plenty to see and gawp at. But you can’t help thinking that Hirst’s art is ultimately as dead and pickled as the unfortunate cows, sharks and sheep that feature in it.
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