Why I Love Damien Hirst

To mark twenty-five years of Esquire, we recall twenty-five men who have shaped the country since we first went to print. Here, Will Self praises Damien Hirst, the Naughty Nineties wild man and cynosure of a farouche group of partying artists

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I love Damien Hirst — no, really, I do. There are few contemporary British creative types — whether artists, impresarios or performers — who we couldn't do without; this does not apply to Hirst. No Damien, and there'd be a large, Damien-shaped hole left in our culture. I'd've liked to link this image neatly to Hirst's own work, but unfortunately what it summons up more are the strange "inverted" sculptures that his colleague Rachel Whiteread produces by, for example, making a room into a giant mould, and then casting its space. If you were to make a cast out of this Hirst-shaped hole what might it look like? Well, probably not much like the Damien I know (slightly). The Hirst of the popular imagination is a cachinnating monster, deranged by alcohol and drugs, who throttles sharks and livestock indiscriminately with his bare hands, but then stands idly by while his multiple assistants undertake the hard graft of chainsawing these animals' corpses into arty chunks and preserving them in formaldehyde.

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No. It's true, back in the day Hirst was something of a party animal; but then, weren't we all? I seem to remember he liked, when inebriated, to get his penis out. But I don't think this was the natural extension of his exhibitionism, rather, he's always struck me as an essentially shy person whose bravura performances hide his insecurities. I never remember the penis being erect. It's difficult now to appreciate quite what a splash the so-called Young British Artists made in the late Eighties and early Nineties — they were to the somewhat becalmed art scene of the time what punk rock had been to prog rock in the Seventies: a new and savage broom that swept all before it. And holding the broom's handle was Hirst: he'd been at Goldsmiths art college when, in 1988, he curated a show called Freeze in London's then largely disused Docklands which featured the work of his peers. His own first audacious animal piece, "A Thousand Years", followed a couple of years later. It was comprised of a glass vitrine, a rotting cow's head, and a lot of flies and maggots. When I first saw this I thought it was a heartbreaking work of staggering genius — and I still feel the same way.

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As I say, the Hirst of the Naughty Nineties was indeed a wild man, and the cynosure of a farouche group of partying artists. Yet even then it was apparent Hirst was shrewder and steelier than the rest of them — a businessman and entrepreneur, quite as much as a spendthrift; a collector and an impresario quite as much as a creative artist. Hirst's tutelary spirit was, of course, Andy Warhol but whereas Warhol followed Marcel Duchamp in making art out of ordinary objects in factory conditions, Hirst not only viewed his artworks as commodities, he viewed the money these commodities were sold for as itself a work of art; or, at any rate, as a sort of art material that could then be moulded into further artworks, which in turn could be commoditised… and so on… and so forth, round and round, for 1,000 years — or until the overblown bear market in contemporary art finally collapses.

Hirst effectively shorted the market himself by holding a massive Sotheby's fire-sale of his works just before the financial crash of 2007–'08 took hold; but even before that he'd managed to pull off some astonishing financial arabesques, including his outrageous "For the Love of God", a diamond and platinum skull, valued in tens of millions, which, it was rumoured, he'd secretly "bought" from himself, to inflate its market value. I agree the diamond skull and quite a few of the other works, together with all the financial jiggery-pokery and the giant folly of a country house he's bought in Gloucestershire and stuffed full of his personal collection, should probably be entered on the debit side of Hirst's bought ledger account: none of it's that clever, really, and it certainly isn't funny. The skull and others of his works have also been the subject of accusations of plagiarism, and that ain't clever, either.

However, there's a great deal more, still, on the profit side of his account: some truly original and effective artworks, a fantastic art publishing imprint, Other Criteria, and a superb new gallery complex in south London,a sort of gift to the public. The Hirst I hear about is a warm, sympathetic man, a decent employer, and when I've had the opportunity to talk to him quietly, a serious and deeply thoughtful one. Hirst, inevitably downbeat and unassuming in public nowadays, has the charisma that conceals charisma, but he also has another quality, one which my mother dubbed "built-in orphan power". The child of a broken home, growing up in working-class Leeds in the Seventies, it's frankly astonishing — and enduringly admirable — the way he stormed the heights of the art establishment.

I expect he was deeply wounded by the utter contempt with which his show of "easel paintings" at The Wallace Collection was received by the critics (and the public) a few years ago. It made me think back to the launch for one of his glossy art books in the Nineties. It was held at the then modish and refurbed Quo Vadis restaurant in Soho, and tout-the-art-monde was there. But, as I recall it, Damien was looking rather lost and vulnerable amid the braying aesthetes, bombinating bohemians and shake-your-money-maker types. Feeling the full force of his built-in orphan power, I couldn't forbear from picking the artist up bodily, cradling him in my arms and walking around the party for a while, cooing, "Nice Damien, sweet Damien, who's a good Damien." It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but I fear he's never really forgiven me. And perhaps that's why, gentle reader, I still love him so fervently.