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August 13 2012

Why Mo Farah stole the show from British artists

Damien Hirst's closing ceremony union flag was magnificent but empty and Martin Creed's bell-ringing at the start of the Games rang hollow compared with the depth of soul shown by athletes

The London Olympics began and ended with art. The morning of the first day started with people all over the nation ringing all kinds of bells to perform Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells. But the big art surprise was reserved for the closing ceremony: this mashup of great, bad and indifferent British pop music was set on a gigantic Damien Hirst painting of the British flag.

In retrospect, it was always a bit fishy that Britain's biggest modern artist seemed so invisible from these Olympics. It was never really likely that Hirst would let a modest fellow like Creed steal the show. And Hirst's outsized union flag in the Olympic arena unfurled his art at its best: a colossal pop icon.

On the other hand, it was in tune with a closing ceremony that was, however much the nation strains to celebrate it, a lot less interesting than the opening show. In contrast with Danny Boyle's imaginative history spectacular, this was a pop concert with very little to it. Hirst's great big daub fitted it well – magnificent but empty, a slather of patriotic baroque. (... although the Who were great.)

The truth is that art was a bit of eye-candy, or in Creed's case ear-candy, for these Olympic Games. It was inevitable that contemporary British art would be wheeled out as a national asset during this self-celebratory summer. And its strengths were on show: excelling at the pop statement, the public moment. Unfortunately its weaknesses were also apparent, when you compared Creed or Hirst with the athletes, the true artists of London 2012.

I don't care how many medals Britain got or any of the patriotic guff that will wash around for a few more weeks. I care about Mo Farah. It's sometimes said of people who are very good at something that they make it look easy. Farah is great because he makes it look difficult. Neither of his gold medals seemed inevitable. Seeing his first victory on television involved and moved me more than any sporting event ever has. It had what I want from a work of art. It touched on deep hopes and fears. It made you, looking at it, aware of the human condition in some deep, primal way.

This race – and other Olympic events too – taught me that sport can be profound.

By contrast, where is the profundity in Creed or Hirst? Where is the soul in modern British art? It's good for a laugh, a party, a bell-ringing breakfast. But where is that sense of mortal testing and absolute absorption we got from the athletic highlights of the 2012 Olympic Games?

Our culture should take a lead from athletics. The real lesson of these Olympics is that the best things in art and life are deadly serious.


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June 09 2012

Jenny Saville: 'I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies'

Jenny Saville's nudes are firmly in the vein of Lucian Freud, yet only now is she having her first major British solo show
Jenny Saville's work - in pictures

I have a low-level dread of artists' studios, which tend to be full to overflowing with the (to me) highly distressing detritus of creativity: encrusted paint; cruelly abandoned canvases; ghostly dustsheets. But I find that I can just about cope with Jenny Saville's work space, which is in a shabby office building in Oxford, owned by Pembroke College.

For one thing, its scale works against claustrophobia; though she has had to remove ceiling tiles in a few places, the better to accommodate the taller of her paintings, it is nevertheless as big as a small supermarket. For another, it is divided, albeit haphazardly, into zones – broken-backed art books here, shrunken tubes of paint there – with a few feet of clear floor between. As we settle down with our mugs of Earl Grey tea, the spring rain fizzing against the windows, the feeling is almost – if not quite – cosy.

Only then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it. A portrait: a woman, her neck at a difficult angle, her head tipped back, her unseeing eyes a pair of cloudy marbles (I know without being told that the model who sat for this work is blind). Now I'm not so cosy. The trick of the painting, the reason it is so hard to pull one's gaze from it, lies with the way it captures its subject's extrasensory watchfulness. She is sightless, and yet you feel, somehow, that she sees right into you. Art critics, anxious to emphasise the resonance or beauty of a particular work, have a tendency to exaggerate. They will tell you, for instance, that a canvas seems almost to vibrate, such is its power. But this painting moves well beyond vibration. No superlative I can think of seems to do it justice. It's uncanny. If I heard its subject softly breathing, I would hardly be surprised.

A painting similar to this one – I find out much later that the girl in question is called Rosetta; she lives in Naples, and was so determined not to be on the receiving end of pity she interviewed Saville at length before agreeing to sit for her – will star in the forthcoming retrospective of Saville's work at Modern Art Oxford, the artist's first solo show in a British public gallery. (It tells you a lot about contemporary art – its whims and its desires, its peculiar snobberies and its deranged hierarchy – that Damien Hirst, whose work appeared alongside Saville's at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997, is having his first solo public gallery show at the rather more grand Tate Modern; but we will come back to him.) Will Rosetta, part of Saville's Stare series, have the same effect in its pristine galleries? Almost certainly, though she will also have competition. Saville's work – she remains best known for her voluminous and unsparing early nudes – is nothing if not startling.

"There's a painting called Fulcrum," she says. "I used to call it The Bitch when I was making it, because it was so difficult to move about. But when I saw it again [recently], even I was shocked by how big it is." She shakes her head, mournfully. "I'm sort of impressed that I once had that sort of energy. The drive I must have had. I can't believe I was only 21. That's so young, and yet I was so determinedly serious about making art." Her voice runs on. "It's cathartic, too, though, seeing these paintings again. When you're in your studio, you've got so much work around you, you don't always see an individual piece for what it is. You think: 'Oh, so that's what I was doing.' Not that I can say I'm hugely looking forward to it [the opening]. I mostly see failings in the work – which is normal, isn't it?"

Has her confidence grown in the years since Sensation? "No, not at all. The older you get, the more doubtful you become, though I mean that in a good way. It's like being an athlete. You get quite fit on your toes when you're really pushing. But then you finish a piece, and you have to start all over again. On the other hand, I don't have anything like the traumas I used to have, throwing paintbrushes or whatever. I used only to work on one piece at a time, and that's where the trauma came. Now I move between paintings. When I start getting a bit dogmatic, I switch."

I look around the studio. From where I'm sitting, I can see no fewer than six canvases carefully arranged against the wall (not Rosetta, though; I have my back to her, so I can concentrate). Are these all works in progress? "Most of them, yes." She eyes them, warily. "It is odd to be showing in Britain. I've been shown a lot in America; that's my favourite place to show. We're quite conceptually driven in Britain. There's less guilt about being a painter over there."

Does she feel guilty? Surely not. People have talked of her, reverentially, as the heir to Lucian Freud pretty much since she left art school. "No, I don't. Not at all. Painting is my natural language. I feel in my own universe when I'm painting. But, in Britain, there has been a drive in art schools to describe and to rationalise what it is that you're making, and that is a death knell to painting. Painting doesn't operate like that. It works on all the irrational things. If you stand in front of Willem de Kooning's Woman, I, you can't unravel with words how that works on you. In America, painting is embraced, perhaps because one of the last great moments of painting was in New York, with de Kooning and Pollock."

She hesitates. "I'm not anti conceptual art. I don't think painting must be revived, exactly. Art reflects life, and our lives are full of algorithms, so a lot of people are going to want to make art that's like an algorithm. But my language is painting, and painting is the opposite of that. There's something primal about it. It's innate, the need to make marks. That's why, when you're a child, you scribble."

Jenny Saville was born in Cambridge in 1970, one of four children. She knew early on that she wanted to be an artist. "I was conscious of it as an idea from about the age of seven," she says. Her parents were both in education and, when it came to creativity, were encouraging. "We had this big old house, and in a corridor downstairs, there was this weird cupboard. I kept nosying around it, and eventually my mother gave it to me: it became my first studio, and no one else was allowed in. I would wake up every morning, and I just couldn't wait to get in that room, because I always had something on the go."

Later, she was encouraged by her uncle, an art historian, to whom she remains close (he lives near her studio in Oxford; they like to eat lunch together, and talk about Prussian blue). "When I was about 11, he gave me a section of hedge, and told me to observe it for a whole year. So I did, and I learnt such a lot about how nature shifts, and the necessity to really look."

She sees my face. "It wasn't weird at the time! It's only weird when I tell other people. I'm so grateful to him. Later on, he took me to Venice, and it wasn't just that he said this is Titian, and this is Tintoretto, or whatever. At six o'clock one morning, we went to draw at the fish market at the Rialto bridge. Great art wasn't something far away; it was part of life. We would go and drink in the same bar Rembrandt drank in; it was as fundamental as that in terms of the working life of the artist. All this helped me so much. I never questioned my ambition. I never thought: I'm a girl, I can't do this. It was only when I got to art school that I realised that the great artists of the past were not women. I had a sort of epiphany in the library: where are all the women? Only then, as the truth dawned, did I start to feel pissed off."

She went to Glasgow School of Art, an institution that instilled in her an "amazing" work ethic, and which set great store by life drawings; students had to produce 36 such sketches a term, and dedicate the hours between 7pm and 9pm every day to working with a model, even if their interests lay with abstract art.

Saville believes this gave her a kind of freedom. "Picasso wouldn't be Picasso without his academic training. That's why he nails it. The wildest distortions stand up, even if they're crazy. The point is that destruction is fundamental to the process; without it, you never get anywhere interesting. But fundamental to that is knowing what you can excavate from the destruction."

At Glasgow, she won every award going, among them a six-month scholarship to Cincinnati University, where she was captivated – if this is the right word – by the sight of obese women at shopping malls. It was these women who inspired her 1992 graduate show and who, in their turn, caught the eye of the collector Charles Saatchi – though her interest in flesh was hardly a new thing. As a little girl, she found the sight of liver turning from puce to grey-green in the pan "thrilling". She remembers, too, sitting on the floor, aged about six, and looking up at her piano teacher's thighs under her tweed skirt; they rubbed together as she played. "I was fascinated by the way her two breasts would become one, the way her fat moved, the way it hung on the back of her arms."

After tracking down and buying up the work already sold at her degree show – this was how he came by two of her most famous paintings, Branded and Propped – Saatchi then commissioned her to spend two years working on pieces to be shown at his own gallery in Young British Artists III.

"I think everyone has their squabbles with Charles," she says, now. "That's the nature of the situation. But the marriage of a new generation of artists from all kinds of backgrounds with this man who wasn't from the establishment… You have to understand that he energised a whole generation, and he engaged Britain in contemporary art. He had the money, and he said: make whatever you want.

"I was only 22; it was a dream come true. I can't say anything bad about Charles because I'm so glad he was there. Suddenly I didn't have to wait until I was 45 to be at a certain gallery. I'm 42, and I'm still younger than de Kooning was when he had his first show. It's incredible how much has changed in 20 years, and quite a lot of that is down to Charles. When I graduated I would have been hard pressed to think of a single woman who showed in a museum, and now women are directors, curators…" Her voice trails off. She can't go on, I think, because the unavoidable truth is that there are still relatively few women artists who are deemed worthy of museum exhibitions.

Am I right? She doesn't answer, or not directly. "When my show opened at the Saatchi gallery, I met David Sylvester [the art critic, who died in 2001] at the door. In the end, we became great friends. But on that day, he said: 'I always thought women couldn't be painters.' Later, I asked him why, and he said: 'I don't know. That's just the way it has always been. That's how it is.' He was right, but I think it's beginning to shift, now. Apart from anything else, there's been a sea change in what we consider to be the canon. Tracey Emin's quilts are art, whereas in the Sixties, they would have been deemed to be craft."

To coincide with her retrospective, Saville will be putting two pieces in the Renaissance gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. "I was standing there the other day, and it's full of nude women all painted by men. I'm the first woman to show in the room, which is great, but it's also obscene." She pauses. "Actually, it's not even obscene. It's just… silly."

In 1994 Saville returned to the US to observe operations at the clinic of a New York plastic surgeon. She then painted women with the surgeon's black markings on the contours of their bodies, so that they resembled living, breathing dartboards. This led in turn to Closed Contact, a series of photographs by the fashion photographer, Glen Luchford, of Saville's naked body pressed against Perspex and shot from below (Saville fattened herself up for this, the better that her flesh appear squashed and distorted). The subtext of this work is, of course, familiar now. But it wasn't at the time.

"When I made Plan [showing the lines drawn on a woman's body to designate where liposuction would be performed], I was forever explaining what liposuction was. It seemed so violent then. These days, I doubt there's anyone in the western world who doesn't know what liposuction is. Surgery was a minority sport; now that notion of hybridity is everywhere. There's almost a new race: the plastic surgery race."

These experiences, however, have cast a long shadow. She is still interested in the idea that many people hold fast to a notion that their natural self isn't the "real" them, and her work continues to be preoccupied by what she calls a sense of in-betweenness. "That's why transsexuals and hermaphrodites have become interesting to me. I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies, those that emulate contemporary life, they're what I find most interesting."

More recently, she has been inspired by motherhood (she has two small children). "People told me [before I had children] that I wouldn't be able to engage with my work in the same way once they were born." Which people? Were they women? "No!" She laughs. "They were guys. Anyway, they were wrong. I enjoy the work 10 times more now. It's still a necessity to me, something I have to do. But I'm more carefree. Partly, it's watching them – the total freedom they have, scribbling across paper, the way they paint without any need for form. I thought: I fancy a bit of that myself."

Since they were born, she has produced a series of drawings, Reproduction, which nod to nativity sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo but are informed by her own experiences – a friend photographed her as she gave birth – so that mother and child are viscerally connected rather than soppily idealised. (Just so there is no misunderstanding, Saville is naked in these drawings, and the baby in her arms is lain on a belly swollen with a child yet to be born.)

Before I leave, we walk the studio, looking at the work that is still in progress (Saville is remarkably cool about this; only one canvas is turned to the wall to protect it from my gaze). "In these pieces, I'm trying to get simultaneous realities to exist in the same image," she says. "The contradiction of a drawing on top of a drawing replicates the slippage we have between the real world and the screen world. But it's about the memory of pictures, too. I'm directly referencing other artists: Manet, Titian, Picasso, Giorgione." If she has any sense of the daring involved in this – the sheer chutzpah of it – she isn't letting on. How does she know when something is finished? "When it starts to breathe, then I'm on the home straight."

We talk, too, about other people's work. She loved both Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern and Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. "It's sad he [Freud] is not going to make any more paintings," she says. "But I'm trying to work out whether he can be seen as a great artist, or whether he is a great portrait painter. I mean, why shouldn't he be a great artist? But then you look at Richter, and you wonder. Richter is definitely a great artist in the fullest sense of the word."

What about Damien Hirst? Has she seen his show yet? "No, but I will." I don't ask her what she thinks about him, but she tells me all the same, in her straightforward way. "I can tell you exactly the moment my feelings about him changed," she says. "He was the most brilliant artist right up until the time [2006] when he did this homage to Bacon at the Gagosian [A Thousand Years & Triptychs]. He did these vitrines, which I felt were dreadful. His work has become much more about the mechanisms of the art world than the art itself, and that must be quite a lonely planet for Damien to exist on. It's as if he has beaten his own horse. It's like the soul has gone."

Will this ever happen to her? At the start of the 21st century, she was, after all, one of the most expensive contemporary artists in the world. But, no. Of course it won't. Her life is here, in the studio. Even as we talk, and she is good talker, I can feel a part of her itching to get back to work. "I like all the bits up to hanging a show, and then I disengage," she says. "I don't even know my own collectors. All the razzmatazz: the market, the auctions. I'm quite immune to it. I know it's part of the process. But when you get in the studio, none of that will help you to make a better painting."


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June 06 2012

Artoon: Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama, part 2

In the second instalment of a close encounter between two artists with a penchant for spots, Peter Duggan finds the relationship on a knife-edge



May 28 2012

Letters: Of skulls, nudes and sketchy art critiques

Hang on a minute – Jonathan Jones wrote in his blog (15 December 2011) on the appointment of Tracey Emin as professor of drawing at the Royal Academy: "Emin is an outstanding draughtswoman." Jonathan Jones reviewing Emin's Margate exhibition (Artist Emin leaves the wild child behind, 26 May): "The suspicion that she is not after all a genius at drawing increases as she shifts from one medium to another … As for drawing, Emin is good at it only by the standards of a generation that preferred concepts to achievement." And in the same week, "as a longtime admirer", that he trashed Damien Hirst's new paintings at White Cube (Review, 23 May). Hmmm … not sure what I should be thinking now. Perhaps I should just ignore the professional critic and rely on my own instincts of recognising overpublicised mediocrity when I see it?
John Keane
London

• Damien Hirst should perhaps stop painting, at least in public but not necessarily for the reasons expounded by your art critic. Damien Hirst is compromising his creativity by allowing himself to be bullied by the snobbery and elitism so prevalent in the art establishment, that only painters are artists. So much bad art is produced by those skilled with brush, pencil and crayon, and artists should not be bound by the forms of past times. Mr Hirst must believe in the integrity of his expression, and the means by which he can communicate it most effectively, and not waste time and effort trying to please the intellectuals. They always get it wrong.
Chris Trude
London


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May 22 2012

Damien Hirst: Two Weeks One Summer – review

White Cube Bermondsey, London

The last time I saw paintings as deluded as Damien Hirst's latest works, the artist's name was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. A decade ago the son of Libya's then still very much alive dictator showed sentimental paintings of desert scenes in an exhibition sponsored by fawning business allies. Searching for some kind of parallel to the arrogance and stupidity of Hirst's still life paintings, I find myself remembering that strange, sad spectacle.

There is a pathos about Two Weeks One Summer, in which Hirst shows paintings of parrots and lemons, shark's jaws and foetuses in jars in a vast space in White Cube Bermondsey. It is the same kind of pathos that clings to dictators' art. This is the kind of kitsch that is foisted on helpless peoples by Neros and Hitlers and such tyrants so beyond normal restraint or criticism they believe they are artists. I am not saying this to be cruel. There is a real analogy: Hirst like an absolute ruler must be utterly surrounded by a court of yes-people, all down the line from his painting shed to the gallery, if there is no one to tell him he is rowing himself to artistic damnation with these trivial and pompous slabs of hack work.

This is the third exhibition by Damien Hirst to open in London this spring, and it retroactively mocks the others. His retrospective at Tate Modern is brilliantly edited. It includes all the best vitrines, and none of the rotten "proper" paintings that he now makes at home in Devon. To paraphrase the epitaph on Albrecht Dürer's tomb, whatever is immortal (or at least memorable) of Damien Hirst is in that exhibition. But here is the other side of the story: an artist so wealthy and powerful that he can kid himself he is an Old Master and have the art world go along with the fantasy. The most recent paintings here were finished this year, so the fantasy is still very much alive. So is the courtiers' chorus of support.

The exquisitely produced catalogue has an essay by a senior curator at the Prado in Madrid, who draws comparisons with Caravaggio and Velázquez. Yikes. It would be impressive stuff if we did not have the paltry reality of Hirst's paintings before our eyes. At White Cube, I pass from picture to picture, trying not to crack up laughing or actually swear out loud. The exercise feels like a parody of being an art critic, for these are humourless parodies of paintings. Like the Prado expert I can spot the analogies – lemons, how Zurbarán – but they work only to destroy and humiliate Hirst's daubs.

Seriously – Mr Hirst – I am talking to you. It seems you have no one around you to say this: stop, now. Shut up the shed. I say this as a longtime admirer, not an enemy. No encounter with a contemporary work of art has ever thrilled me like the day I walked into the Saatchi Gallery in 1992 and saw a tiger shark's maw lurch towards me. But these paintings are abominations unto the lord of Art. They dismantle themselves. Each of these paintings – from the parrot in a cage to the blossoms and butterflies – takes on the difficulties of representational painting and visibly fails to come close, not merely to mastery, but to basic competence.

At least it can be said for Hirst that he shuns the cheap tricks of other contemporary painters. If he used the glib formulae so common in painting today, such as whimsical abstraction and projected outline images, he might get away, as others do, with a total lack of true painterly knowledge. Instead, in a bizarre act of historical arrogance, he seems to think that if he tries to paint like Manet, he is suddenly Manet. Hey – how rich was Manet? Not very, right? Well then … So he takes on the Great Tradition with none of the training and patience that made those guys what they were.

If Hirst did not try to paint an orange accurately, no one would know he can't do it. But he has tried, at least I think it's an orange, and the poor sphere seems to float in mid air because of the clumsy circle of shadow below it. For a moment I thought this was intentional, then I realised it was a competence issue. Such issues abound. You look at a branch and it is obvious he has worked at it: equally obvious the work was wasted. At their very best these paintings lack the skill of thousands of amateur artists who paint at weekends all over Britain – and yet he can hire fools to compare him with Caravaggio.

This exhibition is a warning to young artists. At 18, you may long to be Damien Hirst when he was 30. But in his 40s, Hirst apparently wishes he was the artist that, who knows, he might have been, had he spent his youth drawing day after day after day. He has left it too late. Instead he looks like a tyrant lost in a world of mirrors, like the world's most overpraised child, like a disgrace to his, my, generation. Are we this bankrupt?

Rating: 1/5


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May 18 2012

Damien Hirst, Richard Serra and Tracey Emin – the week in art

Damien Hirst's 'proper' paintings go on display, as Tracey Emin re-imagines the London underground map – all in your favourite weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Damien Hirst

Go on, admit it – you're dying to see this newly revealed batch of Damien Hirst's paintings, the "proper" ones he actually paints himself in his garden shed, with hilarious consequences. The press release confidently places these paintings of his familiar objects in the history of the still life and the painting of the seasons (they were done on summer days). Then you look at the half-baked daub of a bird, a foetus in a jar (or what looks like it) and other stuff on the invitation card and think ... No.

And yet I genuinely want to see these paintings. For one thing, it will complete Hirst's trilogy of exhibitions that add up to a complete artistic autobiogaphy in London this spring. The spot paintings at Gagosian were depressing – the comparison that damns them is with Mondrian. Abstract art is, potentially, just pattern. What makes it more than that? Inner fire, higher purpose. Mondrian possessed that. Hirst's paintings are devoid of it. The difference is invisible yet absolute.

Then came his impressive retrospective at Tate Modern, astutely gathering all that deserves to be remembered of his work. It eloquently disproves those who dismiss Hirst. He is revealed here as an artist driven by a genuine desire to ask the biggest questions about life and death. His early vitrines are genuinely striking and ambitiously metaphysical. Yet they are never quite as metaphysical as they want to be.

I want to thank Mr Hirst for resolving the mixed feelings, from real love to real loathing, that I have experienced in front of his works since the early 1990s. When people disparage him as some kind of worthless fake I am furious at their blindness to his virtues. The Tate show demonstrates he is a real artist, with a vision of modern life. But it does not show him to be a great artist. He's interesting, diverting, but only, in the end, quite good.

Maybe it is because he so longs to be great that Hirst is driven to give up his quite good things and become very bad. His unplugged from-life paintings are genuinely terrible. Ironic defences of them fail because he is too bigheaded to present them as the jokes they actually are. But if you want to be great and you are stuck with quite good, could awfulness lead you to the secret places of genius?

White Cube, Bermondsey, from 23 May until 8 July

Other exhibitions this week

Graphology
Works by Man Ray, Fiona Banner and many more.
The Drawing Room, until 30 June

House 2012
Art festival in Brighton and Hove including artists' open houses and David Batchelor's provocative Skip.
• Various venues until 27 May

Rene Burri
Terrific photojournalist who shows truth can have a style.
Atlas, London until 9 June

The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland
Historians have long used the device of "microhistory" to tell big stories through small episodes. This mainstay of modern non-fiction writing has been crying out to be taken up by curators, and this exhibition is essentially a paperback history book re-imagined for the gallery, transporting visitors to the 18th-century age of the Grand Tour through the dramatic story of the "English prize", a ship full of art bought in Italy by English aristocrats that was seized by two French ships in 1779.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 27 August

Masterpiece of the Week

Richard Serra, Trip Hammer

This is what great modern art looks like. "Looks like" may be the wrong words, as you feel the weight of Serra's precariously balanced mass of steel, sense the danger of it. Serra always makes you aware of the gravity of the situation.

Tate Modern

Image of the week: Tracey Emin's tube map

What we learned this week

Who the new Da Vinci of design is

How the newly reopened Photographers' Gallery is promising exciting times ahead

That Jeremy Deller has been chosen to represent Britain at the 2013 Venice Biennale

Why the Quay brothers want people to get lost in their labyrinth of Leeds for this whole weekend

How a Banksy rat disappeared down a drain – and what it means for the builders who ruined it!

Lastly

Share your artworks with us

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April 20 2012

Damien Hirst looks back on his life in art

Artist Damien Hirst chronicles the evolution of his career, from growing up in Leeds to attending Goldsmiths College and helping start the Young British Artists movement



April 19 2012

Damien Hirst takeover: Sugar skulls and sacrifice

Hirst asks curator Hilario Galguera to explain Mexico's preoccupation with death



April 18 2012

Damien Hirst takeover: the making of my diamond skull

The controversial artist reveals his thoughts behind the construction of For the Love of God, his £50m platinum and diamond skull sculpture



April 17 2012

Damien Hirst's favourite art

As part of his week-long digital takeover, Damien Hirst talks through some of the artworks that have most influenced his career



April 16 2012

April 11 2012

Don't sneer at 'con art' unless you care about great art

Recent criticism of contemporary art doesn't stand up when it comes from those who falsely claim the mantle of tradition

This spring has seen a wave of scepticism unleashed against contemporary, or conceptual, art. We have been introduced to the pleasant term "con art" to mean, you guessed it, art that is conceptual ... and a con. Some reviews of a certain exhibition at a certain Tate Modern have taken a similar line and, even in a Guardian editorial, the contrast between current shows by artists who can make and others who get things made was pondered – Freud and Hockney being the makers.

I laugh with scorn at highfalutin attacks on today's art by people who don't actually care very much about the art of the past. I am going to pull rank here. I spent the Easter weekend writing about Raphael, examining his frescoes at the Villa Farnesina and comparing his work The Fire in the Borgo with a passage in Virgil's Aeneid. I reckon I give as much attention to the great art of earlier centuries as anyone around, and love it as much as anyone around, and I am quite happy to concede that some of my tastes are "conservative".

Anyway, I went yesterday, direct from early 16th-century Rome where my mind had been, to Tate Modern ... and was I appalled? Was I mystified by the idiotic fraudulence of it all? Er, no. I was fascinated and delighted by the art of our time. I contemplated Richard Serra's impossibly balanced slabs of steel and found myself thinking of Michelangelo's Prisoners . You can sneer at that comparison if you like... But are you sure you care about Michelangelo more than I do?

There is a lot to dislike in modern art. There are plenty of inflated reputations. There's a bland establishment vogue for it that grates on me – but perhaps what is happening is the end of that vogue. If modern art stops being respectable, that can only be good for it.

But polemics against it are so dull. No, I don't get all the aesthetic satisfaction I crave from the newest art. Why would I expect to? These are tough times, strange times. The best art of our age is bound to reflect that age. We are not imprisoned here. As human beings, we also have access to the heritage of great art going back through the centuries. No one is forcing us to sit around brooding about why Gillian Wearing is at the Whitechapel instead of Beryl Cook. Why not go and look at Raphael in the National Gallery instead? He is so perfect that it is as pointless to compare him with Hockney as with Hirst.

People who denounce con art are the true con artists, claiming the mantle of the great tradition while sometimes not really loving it, or knowing it at all.


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April 02 2012

Damien Hirst Retrospective at Tate Modern, London

Damien Hirst is one oft he most controversial contemporary artists. Some love him, some hate him, but his commercial success is indisputable. Now the Tate Modern in London presents the first major retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work in the UK.

The exhibition spans two decades. On display are early works that are on display at Tate Modern for the first time since the 1980s as well as later works such as the famous shark in formaldehyde and the diamond skull. Among the highlights is the work In and Out of Love (1991), a room full of live butterflies.

Damien Hirst was born in 1965 in Bristol, UK. He lives and works in London and Devon. The show at Tate Modern runs until September 9, 2012.

Damien Hirst. Retrospective at Tate Modern, London / UK. Press View, April 2, 2012.

Photo set after the jump.

PS: Yes, the (in)famous Skull is on display as well, but the press wasn’t allowed to take pictures. So if you can’t make it to London, we recommend heading to the next Swarovski shop.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.
> On YouTube:


Damien Hirst Tate Modern retrospective opens

Cigarette butts, butterflies and that shark go on show as artist shrugs off critic's claim he is a 'spent force'

He is either the presiding genius of contemporary British art, justifiably making a fortune by thrilling audiences with his memorable reflections on life and death. Or he is an empty con artist, making a fool of us and raking in millions from buyers with more money than sense. On Wednesday, the paying public can decide as the largest UK exhibition of Damien Hirst work opens for a five-month run at Tate Modern in London.

The blockbuster retrospective brings together 70 works and covers everything Hirst is particularly known for – from pickling sharks and killing flies to painting spots and encrusting a skull with diamonds and selling it for a claimed price of £50m.

They are also the things that get his critics foaming. Does he care about what they say about his art?: "I don't think you can. I only care what people say when it's true. I'm sure there were people around when they were doing it in the caves, going 'I like your cave, but I hate that crap you've got on the walls'."

Many have complained that Hirst is only in it for the money. "Money is important and money can sometimes obscure the art but ultimately the art has got to be more important than the money or I wouldn't do it," is his reply.

"Money is so important because so many people haven't got any – it's the key isn't it, more important than languages, it's the key to the world, it can save your life. People without money can die – you can't afford an operation, you die."

Conspicuous wealth is certainly on show at Tate Modern. Hirst's For the Love of God, a small human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, is displayed in a darkened room with its own security in the vast Turbine Hall.

In the shop, rolls of wallpaper Hirst created specifically for the show are on sale at £250 each, along with £310 butterfly deckchairs and sets of 12 bone china butterfly plates for £10,500. Those who really want to say "stuff the recession" can pay £36,800 for a limited-edition plastic skull (painted in "household gloss").

The show includes a room full of live butterflies happily feeding on fruit and drinking from pot plants with their own entomological consultant on hand to check they are living their short lives as comfortably as possible.

Staff will check visitors' hair and clothing to prevent breaks for freedom through the plastic curtains. One journalist walked for five minutes through the entire show, unaware that one butterfly had taken audacious refuge on her turquoise coat. It was escorted back home by the show's curator Ann Gallagher.

There was no such hope for the flies feeding on a rotting cow's head in Hirst's 1990 work, A Thousand Years. The flies emerge from maggots before feeding and dying on the installation's light trap, with the smell of electrocuted insects just beginning to waft in to the gallery.

An even greater, more unpleasant smell emanates from Hirst's work Crematorium, a huge open ashtray of the same smoked cigarettes used when the piece was created in 1996.

The show begins with some of the artist's earliest work including his first spot painting made when he was still a student at Goldsmith's college.

"It is a little bit embarrassing that room," said Hirst, "but I think it's important to tell the story like that. The room is only important because I went on to make the other works. When I made those things, I was thinking they were the greatest things of the 20th century and I realised very quickly they weren't, so there's disappointment in them in terms of what I thought they were and what they are.

"Art is about magic, so something like the shark, I imagined it was one thing and what actually appeared when I made it was beyond that."

The shark suspended in formaldehyde, a work entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is one of Hirst's best-known works but, before that, visitors will see his very first attempt on the theme: 76 fish displayed in two vitrines and collected, Hirst said, from Billingsgate market in the Citroen of his dealer Jay Jopling.

"I stank his car out for about a month. He swapped me the car for a spot painting and I've still got the Citroen and he's still got the spot painting – the car's not worth as much as the painting. I wouldn't swap him his new car [a Maserati] for a spot painting."

In truth, Hirst could buy a car park full of Maseratis but says he prefers to spend his fortune on art. He owns about 2,000 works and plans to open his own version of the Saatchi gallery in south London in 2014.

Hirst, aged 46, was the leading figure in the Young British Artists movement and his work sells for crazy prices.

Some people, however, regard him as a spent force. One critic, Julian Spalding, published a book at the weekend arguing that Hirst's work is 'con art' and owners of his work should sell soon before the penny drops.

Hirst hit back, saying the comment was "more about selling a book than selling art".

Hirst said people have an opportunity at Tate Modern to make a judgement for themselves.

"I didn't start considering a retrospective until I got to the point when I was ready and I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I think it looks good. I'm maybe a little bit proud of it. It looks a lot fresher and more exciting than I thought it would."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern 4 April-9 September


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Death becomes him: Damien Hirst at Tate Modern – in pictures

The artist's first retrospective in Britain will bring together his key works from the past 20 years, from Mother and Child Divided to The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living



Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

Tate Modern
In pictures: Damien Hirst retrospective

Loitering behind the counter of Damien Hirst's Pharmacy, the Tate-owned 1992 room-sized installation that looks remarkably like an upmarket chemist's shop, I was interrupted by a gallery assistant. She stuck her head around the corner and then was gone. Maybe she wanted to buy some suppositories, but was too shy to ask.

I only came in here myself because I had a headache, after looking at all the eye-test dot paintings that punctuate Hirst's Tate Modern survey show, and catching the whiff from Crematorium, Hirst's 1996 ashtray – huge as a hot tub – filled with shovel-loads of old fag-butts and ash, drug-taking paraphernalia, sweet wrappers and swizzle sticks. I had also got down on my knees to sniff through one of the vents set in the glass walls of his A Thousand Years (1990), trying to determine whether it is a real rotting cow's head in there, lying in its pool of congealed blood. I got a face-full of ammoniac air, the smell of all those flies buzzing around, and the corpses piling up in the insecto-cutor where they are being zapped.

One wants to write a straightforward review of Hirst's work, but it is almost impossible. What would it be like, I wonder, for someone with no knowledge of his art, let alone his global reputation, to come along and review this show? What would they see? So much has already been said about Hirst, including a great deal by me. How can we see it fresh?

Tate curator Ann Gallagher has done her best to strip away the excess and repetition of Hirst's art, but it won't go away. It's what he does. The exhibition opens with works from his student years, the late 1980s. A row of pots and pans hangs on the wall, as in a kitchen, their undersides painted in jolly colours. An empty torso-sized MDF-and-Formica kitchen cabinet sits beside his first homespun spot painting, painted on board, which jostles with wonky, dribbly ovoids. Then come the first medicine cabinets, with their empty boxes and jars of pharmaceuticals. The first time I saw these I must have been wandering around with a clipboard, marking them as an external examiner on the Goldsmiths Fine Art degree course. This was 1989, the year after Hirst had curated his famous Freeze exhibition, and already he and his fellow students, and Goldsmiths itself, were famous.

Synthesising the kind of conceptualism-lite, post-pop appropriation and visual gags that many students (and not just at Goldsmiths) were working through at the time, Hirst was also assimilating his influences. These included Kurt Schwitters' collages, minimalism, Bruce Nauman, Jeff Koons's early Hoovers in their dust-free display cabinets, Jannis Kounellis (whose rotting ox carcasses, hung from rods, had been on stomach-churning display though a hot Barcelona summer in 1989) and Francis Bacon. The shadow of American artist Paul Thek was probably in there, too. Thek once decorated a wax arm with butterfly wings, as well as making boxes which housed what looked like raw meat. Like Hirst, Thek also conflated the plight of the body with religious iconography. Thek's career went off the rails and he died from Aids in 1988, the same year Hirst curated Freeze.

With its cow's head and flies, A Thousand Years comes not far into Tate Modern's show, Hirst's first in a British museum. Made the year after he left college, this double-vitrine was first shown in the warehouse group show Gambler, in south London. A Thousand Years is still extremely powerful, and still surprising. Clean and dirty, full of life and death, formally shocking and rich, it has an air of maturity and finality. In a recent interview for the exhibition catalogue, Hirst tells Tate director Nicholas Serota that it is still possibly the most exciting thing he has ever made. Hirst recalls that Lucian Freud said to him, about this work, that "I think you started with the final act, my dear."

Little else Hirst has made is comparable, except perhaps the large, sealed double vitrine from the following year, containing a desk, chair, ashtray and packet of cigarettes (The Acquired Inability to Escape), but even this has the feel of an extrapolation rather than a development. Hirst's shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, from 1991, seems to have shrunk, and here looks more like a specimen than an open-jawed threat. A recent second version is even smaller in its black-framed aquarium; it looks like a tame dogfish, and I can imagine a Ming vase filled with lilies parked on top of its glossy black tank in some collector's home.

There's an element of fun in earlier Hirst: the Sigmar Polke-inspired string of sausages in a formaldehyde-filled frame; the ping-pong ball floating on the updraft of a hairdryer angled to the ceiling. When he repeats this last trick some years later with an airborne beach ball, the idea has lost its lightness. And what, in theory, could be lighter than standing among swooping exotic butterflies in Hirst's 1991 installation In and Out of Love, the creatures hatching from pupae stuck to canvases and floating about the room, living and dying in the space? In reality, it's macabre. Some of their fellows are mired in the thick, gloopy monochromes on the walls of the room next door, which evidences the aftermath of the original show's opening party.

The rest is variation and repetition. Production, in other words: the business of being an artist, and art as business. Hirst's later work might be taken as a critique of the very market that supports him, and the people who buy his work – but I somehow doubt it. Flies begat butterflies, which begat more butterflies. Medicine cabinets begat a whole pharmacy, with endless little pills arranged on shelves. Cabinets begat cabinets, MDF and Formica being replaced by gold-plated steel, nickel and brass. You could stick anything in these cabinets of curiosities and vitrines: medical speculums, nasty operating theatre tools, row after row of man-made diamonds, sheep, cows, Havana cigars – now, why not a human corpse? (Go on, you know you want to.)

This exhibition charts a great descent in Hirst's art, one that mirrors the ascent of his bankability and the creation of ever more decadent and overblown artefacts. I have enjoyed some things – if enjoy is the right word for paintings covered in a crust of dead flies (one of which is here), but the returns have diminished with almost every show. Hirst may well think he is giving us what we deserve: an art of spectacle and the tokens of spectacular wealth. The show's last rooms are full of such things, among them a Carrara marble angel, whose exposed guts and skull are sculpted as tenderly as the feathers on her wings; a white-on-white spot painting whose edges are anointed with gold leaf; a pure white dove caught in flight in a limpid tank of formaldehyde.

The cloying ostentation of these rooms is surely deliberate, but does not make one want to linger. Lots of artists have made works with expensive materials but very few flaunt it the way Damien does. His later work might want to be an attack on the puritanism of a certain sort of highbrow taste, or it might be pandering to the vulgarity of super-rich collectors, or to the perversity of the art market and the place he has come to occupy in it. Maybe he wants it every way he can. Down in the darkened Turbine Hall, his diamond-encrusted platinum skull is displayed in a specially constructed black-box room. The theatricality of this is nauseating – or would be, if it weren't so silly and contrived.

Others have already weighed in with spite, gall and a fury quite out of proportion to the fact that Hirst is only an artist. There are some who look forward to his downfall. In 1991, reviewing In and Out of Love, I wrote that Hirst's work had enormous spirit and great originality, and that I was glad he was around. By 2009 I was writing that his recent paintings were "momento mori for a reputation" (the hapless paintings Hirst showed at the Wallace Collection that year have thankfully been passed over here). My problem with Hirst is not the money (Picasso made lots, and nobody cares), nor the vulgarity he has opted for, but his capitulation as an artist. He could have been so much better. It is an enormous disappointment.

Rating: 3/5


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April 01 2012

The artisans behind the artists

What's it like to make giant monuments for Rachel Whiteread? Or to paint spots for Damien Hirst? The people behind some of Britain's best known art share their highs – and lows

Rachel Swainston

Made spot paintings for Damien Hirst in the mid-1990s, before becoming an upholsterer.

Painting spots was very dull. There's not a lot you can say about them. The canvases would arrive; they'd be stretched and pinned. Damien would specify spot size and we would mark them up and draw them. Then we'd have a massive delivery of household paints, which we'd mix into smaller pots of whatever colours we needed. We'd have hundreds of colours: no two were ever the same. A six-foot square canvas with spots four inches apart would take about a week. Every painting was sold.

It was quite simple really. With the spot paintings: it was, just a formula. Damian didn't need to have much input. Most of the time, there were two of us, although it would depend on how quickly he wanted them churned out. We were just the small fry. I came out of Goldsmiths [University] thinking I can't do anything, so I did these. Although they were all hand-painted, meaning each one is imperfect, there is no individual quality to the painting.

Lots of the Old Masters had people doing things for them. Damien created the idea; we just did the manufacturing. It would have been nice to have been credited in some way. We didn't feel he was particularly grateful, but it's quite a nice thing to be able to say you have done. Whenever my kids do a project on famous artists at school, they always do Damien Hirst. It means they can say: "My mum did the spot paintings."

Kerry Ryan

Has been making neon signs for more than 20 years, for artists including Tracey Emin, Anselm Kiefer and Mat Collishaw – as well as shops and restaurants.

About 20 years ago, Tracey Emin and Cerith Wyn Evans came into my shop in Spitalfields, London, separately, to ask for neons. It seemed to be getting used more and more in art. The first piece I made for an artist was the word EXIT backwards, TIX3, for Cerith, then a neon for the Tracey Emin Museum in Waterloo, then a piece for Sarah Lucas, a neon coffin she called New Religion. I now make all Tracey's neons for the UK and Europe: drawings and whole sentences in her handwriting.

I started nearly 30 years ago, via an apprenticeship on Brick Lane, when I was 16. Working with artists has inspired me to be more artistic myself. It's nice to see the transition from sketch to finished piece on the wall of a gallery or a collector's house. So I've been making my own work – in neon, metal, vinyl. I've also, over the years, worked out how to make underwater neon, which in theory you can't do but I found a way. It was for putting in fish tanks, although not all fish can cope with it. We tried electric eels, piranhas, all sorts. But we found that carp are tough enough.

Because neon is such a specialist field, I end up being a sort of consultant as well as a fabricator. For example, I have to explain that there are some things that just cannot be made in neon: it can't do folds or corners; it has to be curved or rolled. Conversely, I sometimes find myself suggesting even more risk-taking. I do feel essential to the process.

Working with artists is easier than working with people who want a sign for their restaurant or shop. Most artists tend to know exactly what they want, and tend to respect people who know their trade. They also understand materials and processes, as that's what they think about all day.

Art is all about the idea now: I think using fabricators makes art more valid and not less, from a conceptual point of view. If an artist has an idea, it can still take a lot of work to realise. As far as I'm aware, no artist who uses fabricators ever sits on their behind and lets other people get on with it. I don't know any people who work harder than artists.

Paul Vanstone

Former stonecarver for Anish Kapoor. He now exhibits his own work.

Anish Kapoor's work is very boring to make because it's so methodical, so precise. Changes could be measured in millimetres. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. I'm a bit more random with my own work.

Anish is very good at making things himself: he knows what's what. But carving is very physical. He could use a stonemason but prefers to use an artist, so he obviously wants that artist's sensibility. I ended up going to quarries for him, driving across Spain looking for materials. That was fabulously useful, the sort of thing you never learn at art college.

The common analogy is that you wouldn't expect an architect to build his own building. Constantin Brancusi worked for Auguste Rodin, Anthony Caro for Henry Moore. It's understandable: you absorb or reject the skills of what comes before you, and then hopefully find your own voice. At the same time, you can't imagine Francis Bacon handing over his paintings to anyone else at any point. One thing that has changed with fabrication is that a lot of the artworks are like executive toys. They're just so controlled. In my own art, I look for more of a dialogue.

Mike Smith

Has made work for artists including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mona Hatoum, Rachel Whiteread, Mark Wallinger and Damien Hirst.

The most difficult piece I've worked on was probably Monument for Rachel Whiteread because it was so fraught. The piece, which sat on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in 2001, was 11 and a half tons of polyurethane resin, carved into two pieces and made to look like a mirror image of the plinth. We worked on it for three years and then it was on show for six months. If we were to do it now, it would be easier because of the way materials and processes have developed.

It's pretty annoying how little people understand the processes of making contemporary art. Many of them would be horrified if they thought that photographers didn't take their own photographs. But how do they think Henry Moore made those bronzes? It's a lot like making a large car or a truck. I think there's a lack of understanding of the process. There are people who latch on to the fact that peopleartists are not making things themselves. There are even trained art historians who take issue with it. That's the scary thing. The moral outrage – the idea that we're all being duped because we're paying all this money and the work's not being made by the artists themselves – is ridiculous. What's more interesting is whether a piece is good or bad.

Steve Farman

Former negative cutter on major films from Lassie to Batman Begins. Worked on Tacita Dean's Film, recently shown in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

The Tacita Dean piece was the highlight of my career. I'm 52 now and I've been doing this since I was 17. It was the film I've had the most approval for. I felt appreciated, not just a very small cog in a massive machine. And Tacita's film was such a mess. As I recut it, I was saying: "Oh God, you can't have this bit – but you can use that. This bit's got marks on it, but you can use it – it makes it look more like film."

We started at midday on a Tuesday and she stayed with me until eight the next morning. I remember, at a reception for the piece, somebody asked how long I'd known Tacita, and I said we spent the night together last Tuesday.

That was my first major foray into the art industry. Compared to the film world, people are much nicer. They've got time to be nice because it's much slower paced. It was a bit surreal for me because I'd always been in the background. I remember, while working on [Wolfgang Petersen's] Troy, I only managed to speak to the third assistant director, not the director, not the first assistant director, not the second. That's the difference.

I'm of a different generation. If I stop, then effectively there'll be nobody left in the UK doing negative cutting. The 23-year-old editors working today have never touched film; they have no idea what it can do. Someone asked if I knew how a certain part of Tacita's work had been done and I said: "Oh yes, that piece of film was put through the camera 13 times." And they said: "Why wasn't it done digitally?"

It's a touchy-feely thing. Tacita still wants physically to touch the film. But as it's such an expensive medium, artists are the only ones willing to go down that route – because they love it.

Rungwe Kingdon

Runs Pangolin foundry in Stroud, Gloucestershire, one of the largest in the country. It has cast work for Eduardo Paolozzi, Lynn Chadwick, Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley.

I tried to be a sculptor and, although I could make all sorts of things, I recognised that I didn't have a language. Skilful people can make anything, but that doesn't mean it will be made well or can touch a large number of people. The language has to be distinct. A good fabricator can take an artist's language and work with it, a bit like a translator.

I'm not interested in how many assistants Rodin had. I'm interested in his language, his vision. Big artists have a big language – and Rodin's was monumental. Before him, it was tight, talented and dead, everyone worrying about the last hair.

Getting credit has never bothered me in the slightest. We're silent collaborators. We don't have the big ideas ourselves. We'd be ridiculed if we tried. There are a lot of mediocre artists and I didn't want to be another one.

I won't work for just anyone. I have to get into their language, understand them. We solve problems. Some artists will come to us and want an exact reproduction of a model. Others aren't very practical: they might come with some amorphous idea and want us to grab hold of the smoke. We help them fit their ideas into a practical reality. You go through very long periods of incubation, working on drawings with the artist. Once you get an image you have to try to fit it to a material. There is the technical challenge and the challenge of interpreting ideas

I don't think we should be surprised if the general public think it is fraudulent. What's really important is that things are made with integrity. If the artists pretended things were all their own work, that would be fraudulent. But we deal with artists, not charlatans.


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March 30 2012

Art weekly

Late-Stuart decadence laid bare, and a new show exploring the workings of the mind – all in your favourite weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

The decadence of the Restoration is part of our national folklore. After the 17th century English revolution overthrew and beheaded Charles I, the Puritans tried to impose their fundamentalist theocracy. But it never took hold of popular culture, and after the death of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the son of the executed king was welcomed back as Charles II. In his reign, the people got their maypoles back while at court, the likes of Nell Gwyn participating in a culture of robust hedonism that buried the memory of Roundhead misery.

That's the legend – but how true is it? Absolutely all true, according to this exhibition reconstructing the lives of Charles II's mistresses through art and biographical documents. Glamorous portraits by Peter Lely and his contemporaries make the saucy world of Samuel Pepys's diaries visible. Highlights include galleries of "court beauties" by Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller, as well as some of the earliest British nudes. This is a nice way to mark the diamond jubilee, revelling in how much fun the monarchy has brought to British history – sometimes quite naughty fun.

Hampton Court Palace from 5 April until 30 September

Also opening

Brains

That's right, an exhibition of brains, including that of Albert Einstein.

Wellcome Collection, London NW1, until 17 June

Damien Hirst

The shark, the flies, the cow, the controversy. Will Tate Modern survive the hoo-ha? It's all "con art" for some. Gets you going, though.

Tate Modern, London SE1, from 4 April until 9 September

Remote Control

Television gets its own show – about how artists, from Richard Hamilton to Simon Denny, represent and use it.

ICA, London, from 2 April until 10 June

Animal Inside Out

The anatomy of animals laid bare as natural history takes on Hirst.

Natural History Museum, London SW7, from 6 April until 16 September

Masterpiece of the Week

The Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen, follower of Robert Campin, c1440

In the waning middle ages, an unknown painter who must have been taught by the Netherlandish master Robert Campin imagines the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Christ at home. It is a comfortable home, a vision of the Virgin's palace domesticated to delight rich burgher merchants. On a wooden settle are rich red silk cushions. A round firescreen of latticed cane mutes the heat from a roaring hearth, and also serves as Mary's halo – a brilliant conflation of the spiritual and the material. Through the window, with its meticulously detailed wooden shutter, a townscape with tall houses and a church spire transports us to a cosy medieval community. Mary looks down at her infant, while beside her is a richly illuminated Book of Hours. The home made holy, the divine domesticated.

National Gallery, London

Image of the week

What we learned this week

What famous photographers class as their worst shots ever

Why Anthony Caro is steeling the show

From tonz of swagger to babysitting dogs, what Gillian Wearing thinks the signs of the times are

Even more about the best spring artworks

What a Freudian slip really looks like

Lastly

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March 25 2012

Grayson Perry: 'The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts'

The Turner prize-winning artist took to the stage to answer readers' searching – and often surprising – questions about his life and work at the Guardian's Open Weekend

It didn't even occur to me that the biggest surprise of interviewing Grayson Perry live might come about before the event even took place. In the weeks leading up to the Guardian's Open Weekend, we invited readers to submit their own questions for the artist. The responses were, by definition, unrepresentative and unscientific. But what a revelation they were.

My usual preparation for an interview had seemed so self evident until as to merit little attention. Whoever the interviewee, when drawing up questions I almost always gravitate towards their fault-lines and conflicts – the paradoxes and puzzles in their life and work. But our readers, it soon transpired, had other ideas.

Starting from a broad position of admiration, most of their questions could be characterised as devices to illuminate Perry's personality, or invitations to expand on his relationship with his work. It came as quite a shock to realise that only one of all their questions would have featured on my list. Conversely, lots of them posed a fantastical scenario, based on a hypothesis – for example: "If you could travel back in time ..." – which would never have even crossed my mind. The conclusion was rather sobering. If these questions were representative of what readers actually found interesting, it might be time for a radical rethink.

To be fair, though, no research method would have generated my single favourite question, submitted by the artist's wife, who tweeted: "What's for dinner?" Perry is one of the few people I've met who actually go, "Ha ha ha," when they laugh – as he does, with earthy abandon, when I read out her question, before pointing out: "Well she'd know the answer to that." Resplendent in a baby-doll dress of appliqué satin, and pantomime dame make up, he adds, deadpan, "I'm an old-fashioned man. As you can see."

Perry must be about as close to the perfect interviewee as one could hope for. He dresses for the occasion, and deploys the risque, occasionally catty candour of the underdog outsider. He likes to preface a reply with a quote, and the breadth of his erudition is almost as impressive as his gift for counter intuitive aphorisms: "Innovation," he declares, for example, "is overrated." If Perry were a politician, these could easily be dismissed as sound-bites. But he commands the sort of giddy affection we tend only to bestow on our most improbable heroes.

The artist became a household name more or less overnight, when he surprised the art world by winning the 2003 Turner prize. Perry had already been working as an artist for the best part of 20 years by then, but wasn't particularly well known within art circles, let alone to the public at large. Born and brought up in Essex, he'd endured a fairly miserable childhood and escaped to London, via art school, as soon as he could. Never fashionable, his success as an artist had been respectable but unremarkable – until the Turner prize made him a star.

Perhaps the clearest single theme to emerge from readers' questions was their impression that the contemporary art world – embodied by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and so on – is a bit cynical, whereas Perry represents wholesome integrity. Interestingly, although Perry comes across as something of a mischief-maker, his answers are deceptively skilful, managing to both confirm the audience's distinction between himself and the Young British Artists (YBAs) – and yet never endorsing any explicit criticism of his glitzier contemporaries' work.

"Contemporary art has become this baggy old bag; you can dump any old thing in and people say it's art," he will concede. "I don't want to see something you could think up in the bath and just phone it in. If you go to the Tate, every scrap of paper, every piece of poo – literally – is only made significant because it has a famous name attached. As an artist I'm very aware of what I call Picasso-napkin syndrome – I've got this 20th century version of the midas touch, where if I do a little doodle it's worth money! And that's quite a weird and horrifying curse, if you're in the creative business, because you become incredibly self conscious."

Perry has the audience in giggles when he observes: "Now that conceptual art has appeared on the Archers, you know that the game is up," and reflects, "The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts. Not to say that his work isn't interesting as well," he adds quickly. "But the most interesting thing is probably the accounts." He calls biennales "banalies", and says the modern gallery-goer's attitude to contemporary art "is theme park plus sodoku. They want to go, 'My god it's so sexy, shocking, big, shiny, amazing!' But," and he starts to mime chin-stroking introspection, "'what's it about, what's it about?' My attitude to art is: is it good art? Is it giving me visual pleasure?" He thinks art whose sole purpose is to shock is "a bit boring. It's a bit lame," and though he sees a place for shock in art – "I suppose there's an element that, you know, you need salt on your potatoes; I think it's part of the kind of excited tingle of looking at an art work," he thinks it's become "a kind of worn-out thing".

All of which goes down wonderfully with his audience. But he is very careful to steer clear of anything that could be construed as an art-world cat-fight. "I think the prank, if you like, of just signing a piece of paper and saying that's art – that's great, and it kind of had to be done, you know, make that boundary of what art can be," he offers diplomatically. A reader's question– "Compared with Grayson Perry, most of the YBAs of the 90s were, and are, humourless self-important pretentious bores. Discuss," – makes him laugh raucously, but he replies, "Well I know quite a lot of them and they're very funny, so that's a very sweeping, terrible bitter generalisation – probably," Perry grins, "from a failed artist." Another question – "Given that much of the YBAs success could be attributed to their having gone to college with Damien Hirst, what would you identify as your own lucky break?" is jokily dismissed as clearly from "another bitter artist".

And yet his answer is intriguing. A member of staff at an Amsterdam gallery, Perry recalls, came across one of his pots while rummaging through the basement for a ceramic show. She called him, got to know him, and asked if he'd like to exhibit a show in their gallery. That show won Grayson the Turner Prize in 2003: "So I guess that was my lucky break."

Over the years since then, Perry's work has increasingly featured his childhood teddy bear, called Alan Measles; he recently toured Bavaria on a motorbike, with Alan balanced on the back in his own custom built glass shrine, and he plays with the idea of Alan as a god. The bear is almost as famous as Perry by now, and a reader wants to know who Perry prefers – himself, or his bear?

"Oh well it depends. If I'm going to play the game then of course Alan is my deity and I owe everything to him. Therefore I would say that he is the senior partner. But of course I'm afraid to say that I projected everything onto him, so I'm sorry Alan but he owes everything to me. I have invented him. I hate to tell this to people but most gods were invented by someone. I'm sorry. It's just that I'm in the present, whereas the famous gods were invented by someone a long time ago." An audience member asks if he is serious about regarding Alan as a god, or merely being satirical, and Perry admits that at first the idea was a joke, but over time has evolved into "a serious look at how religions form." The best religions, he adds, "develop organically. On Twitter, probably."

Alan Measles may or may not be a God, but he is unquestionably a celebrity – as is Perry – and many questions explore the theme of the artist as a personality. Perry handles them all with the unflappable poise of a media veteran. "Well one of the first things a journalist asked me after I won the Turner prize was, are you a loveable character or are you a serious artist? And I kind of replied, is it an either or? We live in a media saturated world. I'm sure artists of the past would have dealt with it in just the same way. If you're in the business of communication and images, then if you ignore the media-sphere you're just cutting off your own foot. It's just daft."

He is equally pragmatic about the relationship between contemporary art and finance. His 2009 work, Walthamstow Tapestry, satirised our slavish devotion to brands – and yet his recent exhibition at the British Museum was sponsored by the luxury brand Louis Vutton, as well as a City firm, Alix Partners. The only question I would have asked myself came from a reader who felt troubled by this partnership, and suggested that artists should be chronicling the wealthy's abuses, not rubbing up to them, but wondered if they could no longer afford to bite the hand that feeds.

"Well," Perry responds equably, "Nam June Paik said an artist should always bite the hand that feeds him – but not too hard. It's one of my favourite quotes, that one. My show wouldn't have happened without a sponsor, full stop. It's just – you have to chew on it, it's a real thing. It's not a kind of new thing." He is similarly pragmatic about becoming a brand. "Well it's interesting because we use the word brand in a very derogatory way a lot of the time. I do it as much as anyone. But i think a brand is also sort of like momentum; it gets you through the bad patches if you've got a good brand." He adds, though, "As an artist I'm extremely aware, increasingly, that everything that comes out of the studio I have to feel it's of the correct quality. I can't just sit on my brand at all. I think the worst behaviour of brands is when they're all brand and no quality."

Perry spent six years in therapy, from the late 90s to early 2000s, and is married to a psychotherapist, so many questions come up about the relationship between art and therapy. "Therapy's been a huge influence," he says, "and, yes, being married to a therapist has been amazingly influential because we talk all the time about therapy issues and I think it's a very clear eyed way of looking at the world. I look at my art during the time I was in therapy and it was a kind of flowering; I got into top gear at that point." In fact he came to the end of therapy the year after winning the Turner prize, so I ask if he thinks this was coincidental or connected. "Yeah, if you do therapy you'll win the Turner prize," he jokes.

Therapy had a major impact on Perry's transvestism, which began in childhood and quickly became a compulsion, but sounds like a pure pleasure for Perry today. He used to talk about dressing up as an alter ego called Claire, but therapy taught him to reconcile his two gender identities, and the construct of a female self called Claire now feels to him like a bit of anachronism. Perry goes along with the Claire shtick as far as he can, but it's evident that his patience is wearing thin.

I put a question from a reader who says that, when dressed as Claire, Perry is "the spitting image of my mother in law". Perry's timing and deadpan delivery are faultless: "Well, he's got a very interesting mother-in-law." Asked where he shops, he says he doesn't; his clothes are all custom-made, often by the fashion students he teaches every year. "I say to them, make me something that I would be embarrassed to wear. I challenge you to do it! And they try their hardest, bless them. I get some superb outfits out of it, I really do." Someone asks Perry to name the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to him. "And did you enjoy it?" He laughs. "Well it was nothing to do with dressing up, probably. It was probably some hideous faux pas that I've made. No, when I talk about dressing for humiliation, it's probably a fantasy of humiliation that I kind of have, rather than actual. Like a lot of sexual fetishes, you know, the fantasy is much nicer than the reality."

Claire is, famously, banned from Perry's studio, and a reader asks, Why does Claire have to be so neat and clean. Doesn't she need a busy space too? "She's not a real person," he points out with a tart laugh. "This is it. It's me in a dress. I'm a busy man these days so I dress up when other people dress up, or I'm doing a show. If other people are putting on a bit of slap then I will."

I'd decided not to ask Perry any of the hypothetical questions readers had submitted – just because they were rather elaborate and would, I feared, take up too much time to get through, one alone running to well over 100 words. But then someone in the audience asked a concise one: if Perry could live another 200 years as an artist, would he still be a ceramicist or would he use digital media? "Oh I do use digital media," he countered. "Now I only make pots probably half the time, if that. My next show, I've done it all on Photoshop mainly. I'm not a luddite when it comes to digital media at all."

Well well. At the very beginning Perry had expressly asked not to be questioned about future projects – and yet this reader's hypothetical scenario got him talking about it, and produced the one news story of the session. Truthfully, I would never have asked that question. It is a sobering and rather confronting thought.

The overwhelming legacy of this experiment is, to my surprise, guilt. I feel terrible about all the readers whose questions I never got to ask. I consider emailing them with apologies and explanations – until it occurs to me that they, more than anyone, have probably gained the single greatest insight into what it's really like to interview people.

It's not about deciding what to ask, or how to trick the interviewee into answering. Most of the time, it's really just about what to leave out.


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March 16 2012

Hirst and the great art market heist

Hirst is the world's richest artist and the Tate's big retrospective will mark the zenith of his power. But when his stock falls, how will an art world in thrall to big money respond?

The Map and the Territory, the latest novel by the mordant French satirist Michel Houellebecq, opens with a description of a painting titled Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. Koons is portrayed throwing his arms wide. Hirst is slumped on a white leather sofa, drinking a beer. For Houllebecq's fictional artist, "Hirst was basically easy to capture: you could make him brutal, cynical in an 'I shit on you from the top of my pile of cash' kind of way; you could also make him a rebel artist (but rich all the same) pursuing an anguished work on death; finally, there was in his face, something ruddy and heavy, typically English, which made him look like a rank-and-file Arsenal supporter."

Hirst is not only the world's richest artist, but a transformative figure who can be assured of his place in history. Sadly – for him and for us – this is not because of the quality of his work but because he has almost single-handedly remade the global art market in his image: that is to say, the image of the artist as celebrity clown, the licensed working-class fool who not only shits on us from on top of his pile of cash, but persuades us to buy that shit and beg for more. This cockney chancer routine, perfected in the 60s by the likes of David Bailey and Keith Moon, has deep roots in British pop culture. We have a lot of affection for guys like these, who seem to be getting away with it, sticking it to the man.

In the early 90s, Hirst seemed like a breath of fresh air, a rave-era blast against the terrible, starchy politeness that characterised the British art scene. In a world of high theory and rigorously monochrome wardrobes, it was funny to say that you paid assistants to make your art "because I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it". Then, when stories of your millions were all over the press, and it came out that those assistants were extremely poorly paid, it seemed less funny. Now, in Hirst's current incarnation as house artist to the 1%, running some kind of Foxconn-style production line on his compound in Baja California, the cheeky chappie act has lost its last residue of charm.

This year may come to be seen as the high-water mark of Hirst's cultural power. On 4 April, a retrospective of his work opens at Tate Modern in London. In January, an exhibition of his "pharmaceutical paintings", canvases of varying sizes covered in uniform coloured dots, opened in all the Gagosian Gallery's 11 locations around the world. These are major shows, intended to underscore the status of an artist who, at least in the UK, seems to need no help in reaching an audience. The most interesting thing about them is the hints they drop about the new rules of the art world, and about the artist's future reputation, which is not as secure as it might appear.

As Hirst has become wealthier, his work, which (as Houellebecq points out) incessantly circles the twin poles of death and money, has lost the cocoon of edgy cool that sheltered it through the 90s, to emerge, like one of his murdered butterflies, in its full form: as a pure commodity, fluttering free of the things that tie most art down – aesthetics, geography, the specifics of material and manufacture. He has certain signature elements (dots, pills, dead things, shiny shelves, chunks of scientific text) that can be deployed, with minor variations, at every price point from major installation to souvenir mug. His thematic interests in pop culture, shock and replication make it easy to keep a straight face while he sells his dodgier diffusion lines in markets that haven't been saturated by the earlier "better" work – see, for example, the shameless recent series of National Geographic-style butterfly photos, punted out in Hong Kong, safely away from the derision that might have accompanied them in London or New York.

This isn't just art that exists in the market, or is "about" the market. This is art that is the market – a series of gestures that are made wholly or primarily to capture and embody financial value, and only secondarily have any other function or virtue. Hirst has gone way beyond Warhol's explorations of repetition and banality. Sooner or later, his advisers will surely find a way for him to dispense with the actual objects altogether and he will package concepts in tranches, like mortgage securities, some good stuff with some trash, to be traded on the bourse in Miami-Basel.

For the moment, Hirst still has to make things and we still have to look at them. The byproduct of his activities is the most starkly authoritarian corpus of art of recent times. All those hard, glittering surfaces, those rotting animals. The body, for Hirst, is trash, which exists to be anatomised, displayed, described in cribbed Latin names. The only way to cheat death is to slough off your rotting flesh and take on the qualities of capital. It's the 21st-century version of ars longa, vita brevis. Don't just make money, be money: weightless, ubiquitous, infinitely circulating, immortal.

The aspiration to break the bounds of the particular has always shown through in such Hirst titles as I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life, Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now (his 1997 book) and Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the 2008 Sotheby's auction where he sold $198m worth of art direct to the public, bypassing the galleries who represent him.

This drive to disembodied ubiquity is a message to the proles, to awe us, crush us, sap our will to resist. We, after all, are stuck in our stubbornly physical bodies, which we need to feed and clothe and shelter under conditions of ever-greater austerity and social discipline. We are faced with an enemy that seems impossible to kill. In For the Love of God, the grinning, diamond-encrusted skull that formed the centrepiece of Hirst's last London show before the 2008 crash, we behold the face of our masters. And in its failure to sell for its $100m asking price, we can detect signs of the invisible hand moving against the skull's Barnumesque creator. The world's most expensive contemporary artwork was eventually bought by a consortium that included the artist himself and his London gallery, White Cube. It was, in an important sense, a work that would not have been complete without a buyer, and its failure to sell would have been damaging to Hirst's prices, which in art, as in any other asset class, are highly dependent on investor confidence.

Investor confidence is the key to understanding the unprecedented Gagosian show of Hirst's spot paintings. Hirst's atelier has been turning these out at every scale since 1986, and by the artist's own estimate there are around 1,400 in existence, of which Gagosian was showing 300 under the faux-definitive title The Complete Spot Paintings. They are made by Hirst's assistants to a simple aesthetic rule – the colour sequences of the dots must be "random". The paintings are given the names of drugs: Amphotericin B, Cocaine Hydrochloride, Morphine Sulphate, Butulinium Toxin A, and so on. Many of them are technically difficult to execute, such as the piece completed for the Gagosian show that comprises 25,781 one millimetre spots that the poor bloody assistants had to paint without repeating any single colour. Examples have sold at recent auctions for between $800,000 and $3m. This is to say that they are valued like unique, individual works of art, yet are made in quantities – and using methods – that seem to deny this fiction. Thus one could make the case that they are significantly overvalued. Cue alarm in a lot of penthouse living rooms.

If I were Larry Gagosian (usually cited in power lists as the contemporary art world's most important player) and I wanted to help my top client shore up the value of a body of work that was losing its lustre as its fashionable 90s aesthetic began to look tired, and the penny started to drop among collectors that at every other dinner party they went to they saw something on the wall that looked awfully similar to the something on their own wall, what would I do?

Long-term value in the art world depends in a certain raw way on scarcity, but is largely produced through a delicate process by which aesthetic value (determined by curators and critics) intersects with market value, determined ultimately by auction prices. One point at which these two types of value intersect is in provenance. The story behind an object – its past owners, where it has been shown, its place in the story of the artist's career, and so on – confers both types of value. A landmark show, geographically dispersed in an unprecedented way, is bound to be remembered as a significant moment in Hirst's career as a global art star. When that show is accompanied by a critical apparatus, chiefly a catalogue raisonnée (a meticulously documented list of works shown, accompanied by scholarly essays), those works become part of a canon and a magical walled garden of significance is erected around them.

As Francis Outred, Christie's European head of contemporary art, told the Economist, this catalogue "could bring reassuring clarity to the question of volume". The pharmaceutical paintings are frankly too financially valuable to too many people for their actual status (banal, mass-produced, decorative) to intrude on the consensus fiction that they are scarce and important. The owners of the 1,100 paintings not in the Gagosian show should be nervous, though. They just lost their AAA rating.

Like any major artist, Hirst is not the only person to have a stake in his success. Gallerists, museums and auction houses have investments, reputations and income streams to protect. The people with the greatest interest in maintaining Hirst's prices are the collectors who have already invested in his work. These collectors include some of the world's most sophisticated speculators: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the tiger shark in a tank that became the icon of 90s Britart, is, for example, now owned by the hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital Advisers, who has $14bn under management.

This is how it works. A few major collectors make the market. Where they lead, the horde of hedgies follows. Many of the new breed of art investors (not Cohen, who is known to be a man of great taste and exquisite legal representation) have jettisoned even the pretence of connoisseurship. Some of these guys care about the bragging rights that come with a blue-chip work hanging in the loft. Others are all about the numbers, and employ the same tools and decision-making processes to play the art market that they use at work. A few have also discovered that many of the regulatory mechanisms that apply in other markets – preventing insider trading, price-fixing by cartels and sundry other abuses – simply don't exist in the art world. It is possible to game the system in many ways, and the careers of certain artists look not unlike a classical Ponzi scheme, where money from new investors is used to pay returns to those further upstream.

Will every collector who bought multimillion-dollar vitrines from Beautiful Inside My Head Forever see their works increase in value? Or will that value just accrue to the early-90s works on which Hirst's reputation rests, works held by the market-makers? How about those spot silkscreens, priced attractively at a few thousand pounds but produced in editions of a thousand or more? Do they have a future as anything more than wallpaper? It's certain that pieces such as the shark, which have a place in the story of 90s British art, will retain their value – even if it's not exactly the same shark, the original having rotted and been replaced in 2006. But with such a glut of Hirst out there, there's no doubt that some people are going to lose their shirts.

In this context, art museums find themselves in the eye of a storm. Nothing confers more value on an artwork than its selection for inclusion in a museum show. It is the definitive critical vote of confidence. This, of course, depends on the fiction that such decisions are made on pure, aesthetically disinterested grounds. As sophisticated investors enter the market and work out how the game is played, that particular story is wearing thin. This is not to say that the Tate shouldn't be showing Hirst. Its director, Nicholas Serota, attended Freeze, the 1988 student show that first brought the artist to public attention, and the Tate has consistently supported the "YBA" generation of which he is a part, helping to shape the explosion of interest in British contemporary art, not just among speculators but an art-loving public who pay entrance fees and buy nothing more expensive than a postcard.

However, Serota, like other museum directors, is expected to find money to run his institution from a variety of sources, including corporations and private individuals, and this makes museums vulnerable to pressure from those who wish to use them to confer value on their holdings. For many years, the Tate had a sponsorship relationship with UBS. One of the benefits received by the Swiss bank were regular Tate shows of works from its collection. Other major corporate collectors routinely negotiate similar deals. Deutsche Bank has relationships with institutions such as the Whitney and Guggenheim, unself-consciously declaring, in a press release accompanying a recent Georg Baselitz show in Italy, that the artist's work "constitutes an important part of the Deutsche Bank collection. Deutsche Bank acquired significant works by the artist as early as 1981 … In 1999, Deutsche Bank honoured him with the show Nostalgia in Istanbul at the Deutsche Guggenheim …"

The corruption of art museums by investors is perhaps most apparent in the case of New York's New Museum. In 2009 it devoted its entire three-floor space to an exhibition of the collection of Dakis Joannou, a Greek Cypriot industrialist who sits on the museum's board. Other recent New Museum shows, devoted to Urs Fischer and Elizabeth Peyton, also relied heavily on Joannou's collection, and his wider web of patronage. The impression has been given of a museum that is no longer able to make independent determinations of value. This has become an open scandal in New York, satirised in a much-reproduced drawing by William Powhida titled How the New Museum Committed Suicide With Banality, or "how to use a non-profit museum to elevate your social status and raise market values". Likewise, Hirst's major collectors will see an effective windfall from the inclusion of their works in a Tate retrospective, and other Hirst stakeholders will benefit too. That may not be why the show is happening, but it is not without significance.

Despite the financial crisis, contemporary art continues to soar in value. The unprecedented concentration of capital in the hands of the global elite means that the art market, being essentially a very high-end service industry aimed at generating a pleasurable experience of differential consumption, is weathering the storm very nicely. The Mei Moses index, a measure that largely relies on sales of paintings in London and New York, outperformed the S&P500 by nine points in 2011. New York magazine recently printed graphs (drawn on data from Artnet) that show Hirst's work outperforming contemporary art in general.

Other figures suggest the picture for Hirst is less rosy. In 2008, the year of Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, just over $270m-worth of his art was sold at auction, a world record for a living artist. His 2009 sales were 93% lower. Capital needs to be put to work, and a double-digit rate of return looks excellent in any economy. For the moment, Hirst's work is still an attractive investment, but market sentiment may move against him. The artist himself is undaunted. He recently announced that he has enlisted two assistants to paint 2m tiny spots on a canvas. He estimates that it will take them nine years to complete.


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