It is a Thursday afternoon at the end of April, and Damien Hirst is defending his preoccupation with death.
“I just always think about life and that very quickly runs into death, but I don’t think it’s a morbid thing,” says the man who once invited members of the public to observe maggots feed on the severed head of a cow, and then watch the resulting flies get zapped in an Insect-O-Cutor.
In fact, not only is the ‘morbid’ epithet unfair, he goes on, it ignores the childish purity of much of his art, in particular his “spin paintings” (swirls of colour created by squeezing paint on to a spinning canvas), which he admits – quite candidly – “anyone” can do.
“When I was seven, I made a spin art thing with a postcard at a summer fete at school and I just loved it – it’s always stuck with me,” he explains. “The whole thing of an artist is you kind of sit in the studio with a blank canvas, tortured and tormented, trying to work out what to paint. Spin paintings are much more generous.
“I have machines which I take to schools and do spin paintings, and everybody loves them, everybody can make a good one. You know, kids are probably better than bank managers, but even bank managers make good ones.”
We are talking over the internet, and it’s tempting at this point to say something sardonic about Hirst’s skill, or lack thereof, and the fact that “anyone” can do what he does. After all, Britain’s richest artist (worth an estimated £315 million) has admitted in the past that he “can’t draw or paint”. But, to his credit, he gets in there first.
“I got an E in my A-level art,” he laughs, “because I was supposed to draw something precisely and I just wanted to throw paint around.
“I always try to judge things by how children would see it. A great reaction to art, for me, has always been ‘wow’. I’ve always preferred things like natural history museums to art galleries. You can walk into an art gallery and feel a bit out of place, whereas in the Natural History Museum, everybody welcomes you with open arms. It’s about exploration and discovery. You see a giant dinosaur and you go ‘wow’.”
In this “anyone can do it” spirit, Hirst launched a new ‘lens’ on the messaging service Snapchat, so that instead of superimposing whiskers or whatever on their face, users can superimpose some digital ‘paint’ on to a digital ‘spinning plate’ on the floor or wall of their room.
“I think everyone can make art, but I think most people forget,” he says. “One thing I spend a lot of time trying to do is make adults feel like children.”
The Snapchat initiative will also raise money for Partners in Health, an organisation working to support vulnerable communities during the pandemic. “Art should be generous and it’s great if we can help,” says Hirst, who at 54, feels far less indestructible than he did in his earlier days and is taking the lockdown extremely seriously (although he is still going to his studio regularly to finish the paintings for an exhibition and to “keep sane”).
It is the access to art, though, that has always been most important to him. “I would sometimes go out, bump into somebody and they’d say, ‘I’m a huge collector of your work’ and I would be thinking, ‘I haven’t heard of you!’
“I’d ask what they had and then think ‘Who is this person who has got nine pieces of my art?!’, then realise they’re talking about prints,” he chuckles.
“It’s amazing. When I first looked at art, I remember going to the Louvre and seeing the Mona Lisa, then buying a postcard in the shop and thinking ‘Which do I prefer?, the painting that you have to jostle with people to look at through bulletproof glass, or the postcard?’
“I always like both – you can’t have one without the other. As an artist, you want to reach as many people as possible, so postcards are very exciting, like this Snapchat filter. As long as it functions and it feels good, it’s not any less [worthy].
“Art is for everybody!”
The Daily Telegraph
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