Damien Hirst is an artist, entrepreneur, collector and the archetype for marketing in contemporary art. Born in Bristol, United Kingdom, he’s well known for being the foremost figure in the Young British Artists (YBA) movement of the 1990’s. As a teenager, Hirst developed his interest in exploring the “unacceptable idea” of death by visiting mortuaries to study anatomy. To this day, he continues to be interested in what he calls “big issues” such as death, life, religion, beauty, and science, believing that, “you can frighten people with death or an idea of their own mortality, or it can actually give them vigour.” This belief is present in his most famous yet controversial artwork: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Often shortened to The Shark, it is an icon of the YBA movement. Hirst attempts to confront viewers with these “big issues” by using a preserved, dead shark, posed with its mouth wide open, exposing rows and rows of terrifying teeth. The safety in viewing such a creature from behind bullet-proof glass is meant to give the viewer vigour, while also contemplating fear, death and mortality. However, to the critical art viewer, it presents an interesting conversation regarding authenticity, preservation and the role of marketing within the art world.
Hirst has long been applying marketing doctrines such as publicity, networking and controversy to sell his artworks. During his career, he has partaken in over 80 solo exhibitions and more than 260 group shows worldwide. In 2008, during the worldwide economic depression and on the very day that the Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, Hirst sold a complete show totaling 160 works of art at the Sotheby’s auction for over $198 million dollars. Selling Beautiful Inside My Head Forever directly to customers was an unusual move for an artist, as large scale transactions such as this are usually achieved by selling through established collectors and galleries. Hirst is known for defending his capitalist tendencies on multiple occasions, stating once, “Money is as important as love, or death.” This confirms a trend observed by the late, esteemed art critic, Robert Hughes, in which the importance of art has slowly moved away from creative dialogue and towards an obsession with the price at which they sell. In his own words, “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive”.
The Shark isn’t quite as groundbreaking as one might expect from the price tag. To begin, it is housed within a 7’ x 17’ x 6’ tank, resembling an enormous vitrine which is popular in the display of objets d’art. Inside, a 13 foot dead tiger shark is preserved in a tank of 4,360 gallons of blue colored formaldehyde. The shark is positioned exactly in the center of the composition on all sides which is a common practice to produce a sense of balance and harmony. The imposing size and intimidating pose of the shark elicits a primal fear, emerging from deep within the human subconscious. Conversely, the manner in which the shark is suspended in the liquid makes it appear to be weightless and ethereal, encouraging viewers to feel safe, perhaps even empowered for having conquered the initial feeling of fear. That being said, it goes without saying that the meaning of the work can’t necessarily be found within the artwork itself, rather, it is within the mind of the viewer, ergo; conceptual art. As opposed to actually creating The Shark from traditional materials, Hirst uses a preexisting object which he then declares as art, therefore the artwork can also be categorized as a ‘readymade’ which we have discussed before in Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn“. Described by the artist as a “thing to describe a feeling,” this highly conceptual artwork attempts to explore death, fear and transcendence. It confronts the viewer with the inevitability of death, and the desire within many of us to prolong life. While the work itself and the artist do make absolutely clear of what you are meant to think about, other factors come into play such as money, decay and authenticity.
Inherently, marketing is a practice which relies upon an understanding the customer’s mind and their motivations. The Shark was commissioned for £50,000 by Charles Saatchi, Iraqi businessman and former owner of the world famous advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi whom Hirst met while attending Goldsmith’s college in the late 80’s. This figure was famously criticized by The Sun, a UK tabloid paper, which ran an article titled “£50,000 for a Fish Without Chips.” In 2004, Saachi sold it for an undisclosed amount (rumored to be approximately $12 million dollars) to American hedge fund manager, Steven A. Cohen, provoking even more controversy. Dr. Luke White, senior lecturer at the Tate museum in London states in a research paper for the museum that “Hirst […] is a figure which intertwines an aesthetic of terrible nature with the capitalist sublime.” The use of a shark speaks to those in the business world as the embodiment of one who stands alone, at the top of the food chain, untouchable and able to attack at any moment. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by economist, marketing strategist and author, Don Thompson explores the rationale behind the price tag of this work of art, concluding that, “in the world of contemporary art, branding can substitute for critical judgement, and lots of branding was involved here.” The astronomical price speaks more to the insecurities of the businessman who purchased it than anything else. The artwork was a symbol of status and ultimately the reason why he purchased it.
Furthermore, the price of the artwork is even more confounding when considering how poorly the preservation was done. The tiger shark was caught and killed off the coast of Australia solely for the purposes this artwork, but began to decay due to improper preservation. Hirst also believes this was due to the fact that it was not injected with formaldehyde and the decay was accelerated by Saatchi’s decision to add bleach to the original solution. In 1993, Saatchi decided to skin the original shark and stretch it over a fiberglass mold which was fine with Hirst, until plans were made to sell the artwork to Cohen.
Hirst offered to replace The Shark if it was paid for by Cohen, so a second shark was obtained from the same area and shipped in a special 20 foot freezer over the course of two months while the original tank was renovated. This presents itself as a fundamental flaw in artistic integrity for some critics such as author Andrew Potter in his book The Authenticity Hoax. He too believes that the inescapable temporality of using flesh in art ultimately undermines the stated intentions of the artist. He asks “What if – unbeknownst to Cohen- Hirst took the original shark […] and put it in a separate tank? Which would we call the “real”, “original” or “authentic” work?” Which is genuinely thought provoking question, as there has been no mention of what happened to the original shark.
Hirst operates as a commercial brand, foregoing the respect traditional artists have for integrity, modesty and originality. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living elicits different reactions from viewer to viewer as death is an ephemeral experience that no one has yet come to understand. However, the true meaning of this artwork to the critical viewer varies only slightly from critic to critic. The involvement of a world famous advertising agent, and an outrageous price tag reduces the artwork to nothing more than a dollar figure given the lack of true originality or creativity. Reality differs greatly from the artist’s intentions which were made so explicitly clear. His failure to preserve the original shark should have been the end of the conversation on this failed art piece. However, similar to the viewer’s fear of death, Hirst fears the death of his reputation above all else. Like The Shark, he uses his imposing brand to fight back the inevitable criticism which he rightly deserves to hear.
Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below! All images are used under Fair Use, a Google Doc of all of my sources can be found here.