Image of a world on the brink of economic meltdown: Damien Hirst with his diamond-studded skull.
I love journalism because, in the heat of the moment, under deadline pressure, you think clearly. All the theories, prejudices, and smart-arsed notions suddenly have to be binned, and you are face to face with what you really know. So it was that, asked to write yesterday about Anish Kapoor, I found myself confessing how much the art of Damien Hirst has meant to me, not just as an art critic but in my life.
Early this year, I said that I would never write about Hirst again following his idiotic painting exhibition at the Wallace Collection. That was quite a turnaround from 2007, when I raved about his diamond skull. And that in turn was a flip from a previous article, in which I'd expressed disgust with a giant bronze anatomical model he put outside the Royal Academy.
You could say he confuses me. This is partly because the art of Damien Hirst, which began as such a tightly integrated assault, has become since the late 1990s a hit-and-miss spectacle. One minute he is creating the most enduring sculpture of his career – the diamond skull, which I still argue is a serious, as well as beautiful, image of the world on the eve of the crash – the next he is churning out cluttered vitrines that have none of the old power. The turn to figurative painting is something else again: a move so bizarrely arrogant it cannot be redeemed, unless he turns himself by sheer hard work into a good painter in, say, 20 years.
But the real reason for my confusion is that at one period I had such a deep response to his art that it is hardwired into my experience. Seeing Hirst's works for the first time in 1992 at the old north London Saatchi gallery changed my entire life. It was one of the reasons I became a critic. I felt Hirst's message deeply. In the early 1990s, someone in my family was very ill and one night I was in a hospital corridor in Liverpool thinking about life and death. Was it Rembrandt's art that came into my mind? No – it was Hirst's.
His pieces of animal flesh floating behind glass struck me then as an overwhelming revelation of what we are. Histories of our time will never be able to avoid reproducing the shark, the flies, or the skull. Art critics will be debating his worth decades, even centuries hence. He may be remembered as a Dalí, or perhaps a Whistler, rather than the Rembrandt he longs to be. But he will be remembered, and that's more than you can say of the mega-nobodies praised by people too cowardly ever to have loved Hirst when he deserved it.