In my mind, I attribute the “factory model” of art-making to Andy Warhol mostly because of its multimedia exposure through the press, including his own magazine “Interview.” However, to me, Damien Hirst’s use of this model strikes me as a more fascinating topic of discussion.
Damien Hirst’s factory in Stroud, England
The factory model by nature challenges the viewers’ assumption that the artist is the sole or even main fabricator of the physical piece that they see. For example, in Hirst’s 2004 exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in NYC entitled “Damien Hirst: The Elusive Truth” featured a collection of 31 photorealistic paintings, which elicited the response, “Yes, he really can draw!” from viewers and art writers, as Thompson writes in $12M Stuffed Shark. In reality, these paintings were produced by a team of assistants, primarily. In fact, his iconic spot paintings (image shown below) are barely if at all touched by Hirst himself. One memorable quote of his regarding the spot paintings: “The best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel. She’s brilliant, absolutely fucking brilliant. The best spot painting you can have by me is one by Rachel.”
Hirst seems to have no moral qualm with having the majority of the “dirty work” be allotted to his studio assistants (including for the butterfly paintings and the spin paintings that are iconic to his name), nor does he attempt to hide this fact, as he still “claims ownership of the concept,” as Thompson writes – so much so that he sued a British Airways subsidiary brand for copyright after it had published an advertisement using colored spots. “I like the idea of a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas,” Hirst says of the model of his studio, “but I wouldn’t like a factory to produce the ideas.” This new methodology of art making and perceiving the nature of art making as an entity separable by its conception and its means of production might be seen as counterintuitive to the layperson or art historian (as it certainly was for the viewers of “The Elusive Truth”), but then I considered it from another perspective: could this process be comparable to the digitization of artworks, where the “painting” and printing of images is done entirely by a computer, but the formal choices are all the responsibility and ownership of the artist behind the screen?
Robert Hughes makes perfectly clear his take on the Hirst phenomenon in his documentary The Mona Lisa Curse. In a Guardian article, he wrote that Hirst’s only specialty is the “extreme disproportion between Hirst’s expected prices and his actual talent,” and that his only skill was the skill of manipulating other images, or “pirating” them. In his film, he stands before the famed $12 million stuffed shark, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (shown below), and berates it for being a pathetic, comedic excuse for a work of art.
What impairs Hughes from feeling the same affinity for Hirst’s work as the mass public that has responded so positively to it is the insistence upon its monetary value. Hughes believes that because of this valuation, the work is a farce, created specifically for commerce with no substantial significance or thought-provoking component to it. I, on the other hand, really enjoy Hirst’s work from a conceptual standpoint; Thompson notes that the titling of his pieces are as much a component of the artwork as the frames that box the formaldehyde, and I think this method of subtly yet firmly intimating the intentions behind his creations is indeed a marketing ploy, but also extremely thought provoking. Hirst seems obsessed with the concepts of life and death, and possibly an obsession with an infinite or eternal existence; in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, he explains the repetition that is characteristic in his work as “an implication of endlessness, which kind of theoretically helps you avoid death.” Perhaps Hirst’s repetitive, factory-like process of art making and its subsequent recognition by the public financially and socially is a desperate grasp for immortality; if so, I don’t believe that makes him less of an artist, but rather humanizes him in a way that is relatable to the common layperson – perhaps that is the underlying reason for his popularity.