The Pursuit of Happiness

Detractors say Hirst is not influencing younger artists. On a stylistic level, they're right. On a transcendental level, they're wrong. Two weeks ago, Alexander McQueen's spring show—staged within a glass cell—concluded with the models destroying some outfits. Ask anyoneon the London scene, "Did Damien set this in motion? Is he one of the reasons for the new Tate?" and you'll see how much influence he's had. He's their prophet and deliverer, their Elvis and ayatollah. To his supporters, Hirst is an inspiration and a lightning rod; to his critics, he's a black sheep and bad egg.

Whatever he is, I think they see content in him that we can't. Something unknowably, irrevocably British: formed in the primordial interstices between Johnny Rotten's ground-down teeth; steeped in Thatcher and Catholicism; hammered on the anvil of England's dreaming and lost empire. It's aggression, self-exploitation, glee, coyness, the attempt to overturn hierarchy, and a thousand imported strains of American Pop all rolled into one. Seasoned with Francis Bacon, Ed Kienholz, and Koons, the whole potion is freeze-dried by the icy breath of Andy Warhol and laced with rude English ladishness.

Hirst’s "monumentally decorative totality" at Gagosian, including Death Is Irrelevant (detail, foreground) and Hymn (center)
photo: Robin Holland
Hirst’s "monumentally decorative totality" at Gagosian, including Death Is Irrelevant (detail, foreground) and Hymn (center)

Which brings us to the bullshit, the bad-boy myth, or what could be called Hirst's anticontent. No matter how hard you look, there's not a trace of the drunken, profligate, drug-taking, hotel-room-smashing, craziness-at-the-Groucho Club stuff—the degradation you sense in a second in front of a great Bacon painting (though both artists are histrionic). In fact, Hirst's is some of the cleanest, least sexual work around. Everything's organized and pristine; cases are clean, surfaces spotless; garbage bags are neatly tied; air fresheners are placed about; pills are arranged in tidy rows. His giant anatomical painted-bronze statue of a man doesn't even have genitals. There is no dread, no terror in Hirst's art. All his efforts to stave off the hex of death, in other words, have worked. Now Hirst's work is about effervescence, independence, and delight.

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