Damien Hirst: Hype, buzz, glamour and art— Interview with Patricia Ellis (2008)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 3 February 2011
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 27(1), pp. 44-5, January 2008.

While preparing [the article “Why I love Damien Hirst’s skull”, R.J. Preece contacted Patricia Ellis to inform her— and ask approval— about the footnotes mentioning her words and actions. This prompted a discussion dealing with art and media coverage in relation to Damien Hirst’s skull. He wanted to share this discussion, which would normally be a behind-the-scenes conversation, with Sculpture readers (with her approval). Ellis is a freelance art writer (she has written essays for several well-known institutions including the Saatchi Gallery), curator, and artist in London. She was the editor of Make and a former news editor of Flash Art and has occasionally appeared on international broadcasts, including the BBC. [...]

R.J. Preece: I’m seeing a disconnect between the way art is elevated in language and the sensational phrasing that is multiplying the, at least, non-art-centered coverage. What do you think of this?

Patricia Ellis: I think it’s just that art engages with different audiences in different ways. You’ve got the “professional audience” and the “public audience”— the people who come to art through its coverage in mainstream media. I think that there has always been a bit of a disconnect. If you ask Joe Public about Van Gogh, for example, he’s “the guy without the ear”; maybe they know his Sunflowers. I think often the general public only become acquainted with art when there is hype and buzz.

R.J. Preece: So are we saying that art people, while they recognize and are perhaps moved by the highly sensational elements, prefer to use this elevated language to describe it?

Patricia Ellis: To a certain extent. I think that many “professionals” love the sensationalism, as it opens up new dialogues for approaching art criticism. A lot of writing from 20 or 30 years ago was very theoretical, critical, and quite dry. Along with the emergence of the YBAs, and increased mass media coverage of art, critical writing has in many cases become more performative, clever, and innovative in its strategies. It’s more accessible. But you still have a lot of “academic” writing as well.

Damien Hirst’s skull piece is incredibly glamorous and sensational: real skull, real diamonds— it’s obscene opulence and indulgence. In many ways, this is the critical context of the work— the critical dialogue exists within the sensationalist hype of the piece. For me, the iconography of the piece isn’t so interesting— the bling disco death-head thing has been done before in more impoverished variations. The interesting thing is the brazen fetishization and attitude— Hirst’s done it for real, using real diamonds, real cash.

R.J. Preece: Do you think that the rather effective media/communications elements are within the work?

Patricia Ellis: The skull piece was most likely anticipated to create a huge interest through a wide variety of media. I’m sure that Hirst did not make the piece and then go, “Oh my God! I can’t believe I’m on television in America.” But I think these elements are actually part of the life, death, (im)mortality concepts of Damien Hirst’s work. If you look at how media operates it’s very much about temporality, multiplication, and the sublime. Hirst is not so dissimilar from Andy Warhol. He is a global brand. I don’t think you can separate it. I think it is definitely part of the concept of his work.

R.J. Preece: So in essence, you agree with what I’ve been going on about.

Patricia Ellis: I think that all artists are hyper-aware of how their work is transacted and received. Visual art has its own language. You make things using that language to articulate an idea, direct its interpretation. It’s entirely possible to appropriate the media structures surrounding the work as part of that statement.

R.J. Preece: But the art press is not having this kind of discussion?

Patricia Ellis: The art press isn’t really interested in how many Google hits Damien Hirst got— or why. It addresses a relatively small audience, like any publication written by and for “professionals.” It’s a small world: you’re often reading about people you actually know. Art press doesn’t usually discuss how art is situated in the mainstream, basically because everyone is very familiar with and has their own understanding of how this works. Art media acts as a forum for a much more in-depth investigation into the concerns of contemporary practice. Its concerns are very distinct from media hype. It may be “elevated” as you suggest, but if it wasn’t we’d simply only appreciate art for its shock, financial, or social worthiness value. So “yes” to elevation— the higher the better!

R.J. Preece: So would you interpret Hirst as playing this at both an art world level and a more mainstream level? And is this central to his work?

Patricia Ellis: Yes, of course, in a very sophisticated way.

Damien Hirst’s diamond skull: 1 | Damien Hirst’s diamond skull: Patricia Ellis commentary: 2 | Damien Hirst’s diamond skull at Rijksmuseum: 3