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.

1 comment:

  1. So, to me, this article brings the issue of plagiarism as a concept into question. If what constituted plagiarism was agreed upon then of course somethings would fall on to one side of the line and others would fall to the other. But that isn't the end. Whether plagiarism is even an Objective bad hasn't been proven either. I suppose this isn't the place to argue for my position on either of those issues. I liked your arguments defending Hirst, particularly where you introduced the novel analogy and where you showed Breedlove (Mason). Absurd, surely, that so many pieces are to be considered plagiarism using Thomson's line of reasoning. Perhaps absurdity isn't enough of an argument against it though...considering what else is absurd and what else is the case. :) Did I just approach a slippery slope with ice skates on?


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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.