By Harvey Blume
Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme have become symbols of fraud, greed and dull-witted naiveté, of lax oversight, slobbering credulity, and rank criminality — the whole slew of failings and circumstances that have beggared Wall St. and deflated the global economy. Damien Hirst is less known.
He’s no billionaire swindler, merely a millionaire artist. However, it may be the time has come to talk about art a la Hirst in the same way we discuss finance a la Madoff.
Hirst has always been interested in rot and decay and perhaps also, however faintly, in the suggestion of rebirth. He’s displayed rotting beef carcasses, for example, that host maggots — lowly rebirths — which emerge only to end their lives on fly paper. He’s shown sharks submerged in formaldehyde, which slows and thereby highlights their decomposition. One such shark, currently on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, looks deader, sadder and less intact with each viewing.
Hirst’s best-known work is his diamond skull, consisting of $23.6 million in precious stones embedded in much less costly human bone. Part of the thing’s undeniable allure is, in fact, its sheer expense, carried over into it being reportedly sold for $100 million.
The diamond skull was the most expensive, and the most instantly profitable, new art work ever mounted. It glittered with questions about dollars, art and death: Where did the skull come from? Were the stones the blood diamonds of Africa’s civil wars? Was Hirst out to make art or a fantastic fortune, and when exactly had the distinction between the two melted away? Hirst posed asked the kinds of questions Warhol did, about art and marketing for example, but raised to higher — real estate bubble — power.
Lately, Hirst has made it clear that he personally is on the side of greed, proprietary control and art-as-lucre. In a story that has received its fair share of attention in England, but hardly any here — well, we do have Madoff — Hirst has delivered legal ultimatums to a sixteen year-old east London street artist known as Cartrain, who dared incorporate images of the decadent diamond skull into some of his designs. Hirst’s lawyers descended on the scared kid and in effect told him: Don’t even think about it. Faced with full Hirst force, Cartrain promised he’d stop, he’d never do it again, and as proof of good faith turned over the £200 he had made on the operation to Hirst’s minions, who did not refuse it.
But the world has changed dramatically since the day when a diamond skull could epitomize art’s ambiguous ambitions. “The Economist,” for example, that eminently centrist, sensible magazine, is currently using an image of the skull to promote a reader debate on the subject of “Resenting the Rich.” Will Damien Hirst sue “The Economist” for appropriating the skull? If so, will “The Economist”, a la Cartrain, surrender all proceeds?
Self-effacing Cartrain, as it happens, has become a flag around which a crew of English artists and musicians, all of whom proudly resent the rich and especially rich artists, have rallied. Members of one group, Red Rag To A Bull, have dared Hirst to sue them for adopting the diamond skull to their own heartily anti-copyright designs. The group has boasted that once they’ve made ” FIFTY MILLION POUNDS” on pieces using the repurposed skull, they would “repay the Street Urchin his 200 quid, help other Street Urchins and also feed starving children in Africa and Sussex.”
No word from Hirst, who unlike Madoff, has not yet pled guilty.