I am a huge admirer of Damien Hirst. Not of the art, which is rubbish, but of the sheer productivity and exuberance he brings to his life’s work of fleecing rich idiots. “Oh Damien, you’re a genius. Screw me over again.” “Why not,” he says, munching a bacon butty.
Global financiers, concerned about the markets and their stressed portfolios, can be relied upon to keep springing for yet another dead animal in formaldehyde, or some spots or butterflies or buckets of medicine bottles. The remorseless brainless repetition is surely part of Hirst’s joke. Nothing cheered me up this week so much as reading about how well his auction of more than 200 works, each of them painstakingly produced in factories occasionally visited by the artist, had gone. Nearly $200m for this stuff? It’s wonderful. I don’t begrudge him a cent.
Best of all is the lack of deceit or embarrassment over what is going on. The man invites journalists to his factories. They look around, then talk of his stature as an artist without laughing: I’m not whether sure they are in on the joke, or the butt of it.
In London Mr Hirst presides over two large industrial units producing the butterfly-wing pictures and his photo-realist paintings. In the Gloucestershire countryside he leases two wartime aircraft hangers for the manufacture of the spot paintings, the spin works and the formaldehyde tanks. He also has a large workshop and an exhibition studio. More than 180 people work for him, creating Damien Hirsts. Two specialists oversee the formaldehyde unit, which on a visit in July contained four dead ponies, a wild boar, an upended cow and, in good “Godfather” style, a horse’s head in a plastic bag.
In the workshop three women were talking about the “Hedgehog”, a device attached to a Hoover. It is a small plastic tube with 20 holes cut into it in which are inserted cut-down cigarettes, some ringed with lipstick. Switch on the Hoover and, hey presto, instant cigarette butts for lot 134 (top estimate, £300,000). In another workshop, three fabricators were painting precisely measured round circles at regular intervals on a white background. These are the famed spot paintings that Mr Hirst says were inspired by playing snooker. The fabricators choose which colour each spot is to be, and use ordinary household paint to apply the shades. The butterfly pictures are made by fabricators who are given the dimensions needed, but are otherwise left to themselves to choose the colours and designs they want. Having given his final approval—sometimes, one fabricator says, only by looking at a photograph—Mr Hirst signs and dates the back of the work.
I love it that the fabricators choose the spots’ colours. (Could they not also choose the shapes? This would only add to Mr Hirst’s stature, and the market value of the work.) He is selling batches of autographs at $200m a throw–with the added pleasure of knowing that a dead cow will soon be stinking out some plutocrat’s palace. Please do not suspect me of sarcasm. I offer him my sincerest congratulations.