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Damien Hirst

British Sculptor and Painter

Damien Hirst Photo

Born: June 7, 1965 - Bristol, England

"The difference between art about death and actual death is that one's a celebration and the other's a dull fact."

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Summary of Damien Hirst

One of the late-20th century's greatest provocateurs and a polarizing figure in recent art history, Damien Hirst was the art superstar of the 1990s. As a young and virtually unknown artist, Hirst climbed far and fast, thanks to Charles Saatchi, an advertising tycoon who saw promise in Hirst's rotting animal corpses, and gave him a virtually unlimited budget to continue. His shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, wowed and repulsed audiences in 1991. In 1995 (the same year that he won the coveted Turner Prize) Hirst's installation of a rotting bull and cow was banned from New York by public health officials who feared "vomiting among the visitors." Hirst, the Sid Vicious of the art world (the Sex Pistols were his favorite band), is the logical outcome of a process of ultra-commodification and celebrity that began with Andy Warhol.

Key Ideas

From the outset of his career, Hirst devised a fool-proof strategy for grabbing the attention of the public and critics. Rotting corpses appalled and attracted museum visitors, who saw it as a kind of dare. Critics were equally appalled, not so much by the art as by the sky-high prices (often prearranged) paid for it. This kept Hirst at the center of the art world and augmented the value of his work, which continues to command some of the highest prices on the market.
Bloody bodies (martyrs and the death of Christ) and mothers and children (the Madonna and Child) are iconic themes in Western religious painting. Hirst, who was raised Catholic, cites this as an important dimension of his aesthetic sensibility.
Controversial as it is, Hirst's approach is firmly rooted in historical and contemporary sources. In its focus on death, it hearkens back to the memento mori (reminders of mortality) images in European still life. In using biological materials, he joins other contemporary artists of the late-20th century, among them Robert Rauschenberg, with his taxidermied animals, Carolee Schneemann, who covered herself in raw meat, and Joseph Beuys, who constructed Fat Chair and other sculptures made of fat. Where Hirst differs from his historical and contemporary predecessors is in his display of entire corpses as visual spectacles.
Hirst is a great showman. One needn't be an art specialist to appreciate the thrill of seeing a dead shark up close. Not just for art world insiders, these strike a chord with many first-time visitors to museums, introducing them to the challenges of contemporary art in an engaging and immediate way.
Love him or hate him, Hirst was a visionary in anticipating the needs of the contemporary art market. One could argue, as some have, that this in itself is a form of art.
Damien Hirst Photo

Damien Hirst was born in Bristol, England in 1965. His family moved to Leeds shortly after he was born, where he spent much of his childhood. After his parents separated when he was 12, he was raised exclusively by his mother. A rebellious teen, he was arrested twice for shoplifting and was not a strong student, however he showed promise in art, and eventually decided to study at university. Coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hirst took a keen interest in the punk music and social scene that was taking hold within British culture, gravitating toward its rejection of tradition and confrontational, gritty subject matter. He was a particular fan of the Sex Pistols - even though his mother once melted one of their LP's into a fruit bowl - and would reference them numerous times in his later work.

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