Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Damien Hirst: Plagiarist or Poet?

Artist Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckist art movement, which promotes figurative painting and rejects conceptual art, recently, published a list of grievances against artist Damien Hirst for alleged acts of plagiarism. The news of these claims, some resurfaced, and some new, was brought to light in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper on Sept. 2. This article is an attempt to dismiss some of those claims.

(Note: The captioned comparison images seen here are from and presumably put together by Thomson himself.)

Science Catalog

Thomson, at length, recalls artist John LeKay’s stories of Hirst, including his visits to his studio and his giving Hirst a copy of the Carolina Biological Supply Company ‘Science’ catalog, which LeKay had been using for inspiration. LeKay had apparently advised Hirst to stay away from the skeletons, skulls, mannequins and resuscitation dolls in the catalog, which he had claimed for himself.

Thomson writes, “In 1993, LeKay made paintings based on images of cancer cells from the Carolina Science catalogue. Hirst saw them. In 2007, in Beyond Belief at the White Cube gallery in London, Hirst exhibited paintings based on images of cancer cells from the Science Photo Library.”

He curiously doesn’t include a photo of LeKay’s cancer cell painting. This one in particular is probably the most ridiculous of all the accusations. “He painted cancer cells.” Is there a patent on the way cancer cells look? What about painting any part of the body, is that not okay because it’s somehow a copyright infringement? What if two nudes look very similar? As you can see, it’s fairly easy to debunk this and many of Thomson’s claims using reduction ad absurdum.

Hirst is most known for his work with vitrines.

At its core, the complaint is that the sawn in half animals in the works look similar. Well, yes they do – they’re the same animal. One might say, “Well, why can one artist saw an animal and half, but when another saws an animal in half and puts it in a vitrine, it sells for millions of dollars?”

The art market is a curious animal and a difficult debate to get into, so I won’t attempt to broach it in this article, nor do I feel I have the expertise to comment on it. Speaking from a pragmatic standpoint – is Hirst’s art worth what people have paid for it? Yes, because people have paid that much for it. It is difficult to get into moralistic discussions of “worth.” What is a piece of art “worth”? It’s hard to say – you wouldn’t want to judge the worth based on the cost of the paint and the canvas, just as you wouldn’t want to judge the worth of the novel based on the cost of paper and printing.


Here we have two different drug shelves. They look nothing alike, except for the fact that both contain items in jars on a series of shelves.

I saw this piece last December at MOCA in North Miami Beach:

It’s called ‘Breedlove (Mason)’ by Xaviera Simmons, made in 2009. I guess someone didn’t give her the memo that jars and shelves were somehow off limits?


These look nothing alike. According to Thomson, LeKay used soap and Swarovski crystals. Hirst did a platinum cast of a human skull, inserted human teeth and encrusted it with 8,601 flawless diamonds. While the titles of the pieces may seem similar (Spiritus Callidus is a name for the devil) Hirst’s title actually came from a statement his mother made about his artwork, “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?” As for “copying” LeKay – skulls have been encrusted with gems for a long time. The Aztecs did it. It’s not a good mark of plagiarism.

Spin Paintings

Thomson recalls the similarity between Walter Robinson’s spin paintings and those of Damien Hirst.

Yes, some of the colors look somewhat similar, but the pieces aren’t identical copies of one another. For one thing, the idea that you can quasi-patent an art technique is ludicrous. Jackson Pollock wasn’t the first to experiment with the drip painting technique, but he wouldn’t be called a plagiarist. One of the goals in art seems to me to take materials and a concept, implement one or more techniques and make them work together. If the outcome is DOA, then the idea is a failure, if it looks good, so be it.

Would the man who designed the urinal be taken seriously if he accused Marcel Duchamp of plagiarism? Granted that may not be an exact example, but the idea is clear. Hirst’s is a postmodern aesthetic.

Dot Paintings

All the pieces are fundamentally colored dots. If Hirst is a plagiarist, wouldn’t the artists who came before him be guilty of ripping off Georges Seurat and pointillism?

Balls Suspended in Air

Another piece of evidence Thomson points to is the similarities between Hirst’s floating ball in ‘Loving in a World of Desire’ (1995), and Hans Haacke’s ‘Floating Sphere’ in 1964.

What I fail to understand, is that, at their essence, both works are a ball suspended in air, so why doesn’t Thomson have anything to say about Jeff Koon’s three floating basketballs from 1987. If Hirst is a plagiarist in Thomson’s eyes, why isn’t Koons? Hirst is just an easy target.

Jeff Koons , Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985

Work Titles

Hirst’s biggest strength has always been his titles. He titled his dot paintings after drugs, ‘Valium’ or ‘Cocaine Hydrochloride.’ The title becomes just as important as the work. Looking at the colored dots in ‘Valium’, you can think of them as multicolored pills. Looking at those in ‘Cocaine Hydrochloride’ you can imagine it as kaleidoscopic and exuberant journey, a journey which one might take under the influence of the drug.

Two good examples of his grace with titles are ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ his title for the infamous shark vitrine, and ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’ – a vitrine with a desk, a chair, an ashtray, cigarettes and a lighter. The vitrine acts as a snapshot – capturing a moment, in this case a moment of either loneliness, or a longing for escape. The desk represents being trapped or repressed in ones work, perhaps a socio-political comment. There are many ways to read it, the title adds to the layers of meaning. This is part of what makes Hirst so great.


Germaine Greer, writing for The Guardian, said of Hirst, "Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative - revolutionary even.”

It appears that Thomson’s claims have come out of jealousy or resentment for Hirst and his fame. This kind of mudslinging is a distraction. If you look hard enough, many, many things have been “done” before – whether the similarities between Hirst’s work and that of other artists is a coincidence or not is not exactly the issue. Homages or pastiches are found in art, as are nods to other works in literature. I myself have found a nod to T.S Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial.’ Is every similarity necessarily an act of plagiarism? To say that it is puts the contention on a very slippery slope.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Artist Profile: Martin Kippenberger

Born: February 25, 1953 in Dortmund.
Died: March 7, 1997 in Vienna (cause of death – liver cancer)

I like Kippenberger partly because he always puts a smile on my face. Even though he was a pretty major alcoholic, he didn’t have the “tortured artist” persona that some of my other favorites have. His work is playful, particularly his song, ‘Yuppi Du’, which you can hear on YouTube here:

His poem, ‘No Problem’, co-written with Albert Oehlen has numerous thought provoking stanzas and could hold its own against the average Beat or Imagist poem any day.

The poem hints at various problems – the mind-body/free will problem, the problem of commodity fetishism, the problem of narrow-mindedness, among others.

Some of my favorite lines are:
“This sentence has problems”
(Multi-layered self-reference at its finest. The neo counterpart to Magritte’s infamous ‘Treachery of Images’ piece.)

“We don’t have problems with streets because they are surrounded by houses.”
(No reason to fear that which you don’t have to face unless you want to. To quote a Banksy piece: “Let them eat crack.”)

Two shining others which need not annotation:
“You are not the problem – it’s the problem maker in your head.”
“We don’t have problems w people who look exactly like us because they get our pain.”

Kippenberger’s work is distinctive because it stands alone in terms of the use of unusual forms of collaboration – his massive installation, ‘The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”’ (1994), was an attempt to finish the unfinished work.

One writer described Kippenberger as having “embraced failure as generative strategy.”

His work isn’t kitschy and not overtly satirical. It’s about having fun but never forgetting you’re an adult – who can drink all day and be ironic if you felt like it. It’s that of poised and humorous underground musings w/ a layer of pop culture shellac.

An interesting work, which I unfortunately couldn’t find a picture of online, is a shelving unit readymade piece that Kippenberger painted gray and named ‘Wittgenstein’, after the philosopher. Matthew Collings writes, in ‘This is Modern Art’, “…Wittgenstein was a favorite author among Minimal and Conceptual artists of the 1960s…it seems appropriate because grey was the favorite colour of both those movements.”

Like many great artists before and after him, Kippenberger provides a lot of questions on what is necessary in art, and challenges our conception of what can work in art. His canon is like a stew made from not-too-old leftovers: It’s got a little bit of everything, but is packed with heartiness.

Here’s a great video on MoMA’s ‘The Problem Perspective’ exhibition, which mentions Kippenberger’s hodgepodge, but calculated subject matter.

As is typical, the Stuckists hate on Hirst

So, I read today, here:

that Charles Thompson, the rather unremarkable co-founder of the Stuckist movement, is accusing Hirst of stealing some of his ideas. (For perspective, one of the other founders is Billy Childish, former beau of Tracey Emin - looks like we know who got the rough end of the deal there.)

After reading the article, I have to address the elephant in the room: The fact that this allegation is coming from a Stuckist is incredibly ironic. The Stuckist movement is rooted in anti-conceptualism and anti-cleverness.

From their website:
"Against conceptualism, hedonism and the cult of the ego-artist."

(Nevermind, of course, that the act of accusing one of England's most talented and beloved living artists of being a fraud is an intense act of the ego.)

So, why would one of the founders of a movement that was founded on attacks to neo-conceptualists like Hirst and Emin, A. Supposedly develop conceptual works like those of Hirst, and/or B. Admit to this degree of ideologically hypocritical creativity.
It doesn't seem to make sense. I'd give a simple, though not polished answer, that Thompson may just be jealous.

I'm not saying Hirst is infallible, but it is hard to take the claims seriously. However, even if there is some validity to the claims, the situation brings up an old statement, "There's no such thing as a cliche."
If one digs deep enough, similarities will abound between the primary chosen work and works that preceded it. This is understood. To say that it is all cliched or acts of plagiarism is a reductio ad absurdum that only distracts unnecessarily from the act of appreciating the work for what it is, its zeitgeist, and who it came from, not putting it up against a canon of all works ever created.

The writer makes a good point about this here:
"Less interesting is the claim that Hirst's famous 1991 piece "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" was inspired by a stuffed shark that hung on the wall of an electrical supply store. Last we checked, there was no law against locating one’s muse in a stuffed fishing trophy."

and here:

Many of their pieces do bear an uncanny resemblance, such as LeKay’s 1993 skulls covered in crystals (titled "Spiritus Callidus," one moniker for the devil) and Hirst’s 2007 "For the Love of God," a skull covered in diamonds. (Though, of course, embellishing skulls with precious materials is an ancient practice predating both men by centuries.)

I'll be revisiting this story some more.

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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.