Damien Hirst – Innovator


“I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘fuck off’. But after a while you can get away with things.” Damien Hirst, 1988

Damien Hirst, the bad boy of contemporary art, has spent his career breaking the rules of the established art industry, and his success provides a number of important lessons for organizations.

A new WHO

One of Hirst’s earliest breakthroughs was the recognition that the late 20th century had seen the emergence of ‘non-traditional’ art buyers – a new WHO that the contemporary art world of artists, dealers, curators and galleries had been slow to serve. These were consumers, many of them from relatively ‘new wealth’, who did not buy for artistic interest alone – they bought for fun or status, or invested to sell at a profit when they decided to sell the artwork again.

One of Hirst’s prominent customers was Steve Cohen, the billionaire who purchased Hirst’s shark sculpture, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Said one art critic: “..the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12 million for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination… Of course, $12 million would be nothing to Cohen, but the thought of paying that price for a rotten fish is an outright obscenity.”

Hirst and his mentor Charles Saatchi understood this, and they also appreciated that a very real issue for many ‘non-traditional’ buyers at the high-end of the art market was expected future return on investment. The way to meet these expectations – status and investment returns – was to create unique and strongly branded products.

A new WHAT

Another of Hirst’s very early insights was his recognition that by the end of the 20th century the established art world had come to define ‘works of art’ rather narrowly. In the early years of Hirst’s career both he and Saatchi identified the need to create a new WHAT –  images, symbols and signs that buyers could acknowledge as unique, whether or not they were attracted to them.

While animals – alive and dead – had been exhibited in museums, aquariums and zoos for centuries, the art world had remained largely blind to the potential of incorporating biological elements.  Through his use of animals and animal parts in his sculptures and other objects of art, Hirst created a uniquely differentiated artistic style. Hirst’s shark sculpture became the icon of British art in the 1990s, and a symbol of Britart worldwide.

The degree of opposition to Hirst’s work indicated the degree to which the established art world was blinkered to the massive commercial opportunities arising from the new WHAT created by Hirst and Saatchi during the 1990s. The leading art critic Robert Hughes attacked Hirst as responsible for “the decline of contemporary art”. But Hughes and many other highly respected critics from the art ‘establishment’ seemed blind to an emerging reality – at a time when the quantity of art being produced was exploding, successful commercial exploitation of art was no longer primarily about the physical manifestation of a piece of art.

Hirst’s idea early in his career was not first and foremost to produce a solid and sustainable body of work, like classical artist as Klee, Picasso or Barnet Newman. Instead, the primary objective of Hirst seemed to be to establish his own brand and differentiate his unique works through direct and often shocking provocation. What he proved, and what astounded many art critics, was that there was a multi-million dollar market for art work incorporating rotting meat, maggots and dead sheep.

A new HOW

But Hirst did not only question the WHO and WHAT of the established art world. He also challenged established approaches to HOW art work should be exhibited, produced and sold. Right from the beginning Hirst followed a different path to access art consumers. Instead of using only the traditional way of distributing art through dealers he also adopted the role of curator.

He also created a new HOW in terms of art production. Although Hirst participated physically in the making of early works, he had always needed assistants. But by the late 1990s the sheer volume of work produced necessitated a “factory”, with Hirst working closely with his main art production company called Science Ltd. While “factory” production had been used by other prominent artists throughout history, like Andy Warhol, Hirst was perhaps unique in the minimal level of input that he contributed to many of his works. Hirst had publicly said that he only painted five of several hundred spot paintings produced by his studio because, “I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it”.

Hirst believed that modern-day artists, especially those already exhibiting at the high-end of the market, had been largely blind to yet another new HOW – the sale of contemporary art through the world’s auction houses. For centuries artists had distributed their art works through dealers and galleries, with auction houses typically selling the art works of collectors rather than works directly from artists themselves.  It was also virtually unknown for an auction to include works younger than two years old.

Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction represented the first time that an artist of his standing had put work directly into the public market rather than operating through dealers and galleries who charged larger commissions. Hirst said, “It’s a very democratic way to sell art and it feels like a natural evolution for contemporary art.”

Lessons for all

The strategy adopted by Hirst witnessed the emergence of a new market space, where he was the first and only player. Although the traditional art world had not consciously ignored the new market created by Hirst, the industry’s focus upon the traditional WHO-WHAT-HOW boundaries of art had created a significant degree of inertia.  The success of Damien Hirst has important implications for practicing managers who need to recognise that their own experience might make them blind to opportunities for strategic innovation.

The challenge for today’s managers is nothing less than removing their organization’s innovation cataracts, and to do this they must continuously question the WHO-WHAT-HOW traditions of their industries.


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