Last weekend, I took my kids to SFMOMA for the first time. After touring the museum, I asked them, “Which artwork did you like the best?”
My eldest was the first to respond, and he said, “The bull’s head” (referring to Damien Hirst’s Philip (The Twelve Disciples), a “ready-made” sculpture of a skinned bull’s head placed in a white framed case of formaldehyde, which sits on the floor in one of SFMOMA’s main rooms – see top left sketch above).
In high school, when I first heard that an artist had won critical acclaim for suspending a 14-foot dead shark in a transparent case filled with formaldehyde, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Since then, British artist, Damien Hirst, has become one of the (if not THE) most famous living artists in the world.
His paintings and sculptures are found in every major modern art museum. His works fetch astronomical prices. For example, in September 2008, Sotheby’s auctioned off a complete show of his artwork titled, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. At the end of the two-day auction, Hirst’s artwork sold for a total of £111 million ($198 million). What’s ironic is that while Damien Hirst was filling his coffers, the rest of the world was losing theirs – the auction started the same day that Lehaman Brothers declared bankruptcy. In his fantastic book, What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art, Will Gompertz wrote,
“The art world appeared to be oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, as pickled animals and brightly colored paintings sold for their estimated prices or above.”
Such is the cachet of Damien Hirst.
With works that include dead animals, pharmaceutical bottles stacked on shelves, and colored dots painted evenly over a white canvas, part of me thinks that Damien Hirst is just “taking the piss,” and that for every £1 million increase in his bank account, he has a little chuckle at our expense.
But after learning more about the ideas behind some of his paintings and sculptures, I gained a healthy respect for Hirst, who other famous contemporary artists say is in a league of his own. And if a seven-year-old chooses Philip as his favorite, out of all of the other pieces in SFMOMA, then part of me thinks that Damien Hirst is a genius.
What do you think?
P.S. My youngest son chose Super Nova, by Takashi Murakami, which was predictable, as it is a 30-foot brightly colored painting of anime mushrooms. My other son chose two drawings by Lebbeus Woods, all of which are incredible, and one of which I sketched above.