Why Damien Hirst torched 1,000 original paintings on livestream

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Artist Damien Hirst torched 1,000 original paintings on livestream, proving he’s also a brilliant businessman

Damien Hirst, the world’s richest modern artist, torched 1,000 pieces of physical artwork this week — livestreaming it online. Like many modern artists, his goal is to challenge traditional conceptions of art through his pieces. But he’s also a savvy business owner who knows how to create the kind of buzz that will get his works the attention of wealthy buyers.

Hirst, who works with a variety of mediums — everything from diamonds to skulls to dead animals — focuses many of his pieces on mortality. He has been received favorably by critics in the past — especially in the ’90s — but many in the art world soured on him over the years as his focus seemed to be on profit instead of creation, or because they feel his later pieces don’t pack the same punch.

Hirst doesn’t seem to care, and he’s still raking in a profit. He once dismissed the art community as just people “drinking wine and eating cheese.” But for all his controversial pieces (some of his most famous works are of animal carcasses preserved in formaldehyde and paintings of colorful spots that some call simple and others call simply genius) and open dismissal of the traditional art scene, Hirst isn’t a rebel without a cause — and that cause is making money doing what he loves. His piece, “The Golden Calf” went for $18.6 million in 2008 — part of a record-breaking sale at Sotheby’s for a single artist.

This week, he challenged the art world yet again by destroyingpermanentworks in favor of more ephemeral NFTs as part of the project he calls “The Currency.” Buyers from the collection had a year to decide if they wanted to keep the physical painting or have Hirst burn it and give them rights to an NFT version. It was a brilliant business move, says Martin Kupp — a professor for entrepreneurship and strategy and expert on the business of art at ESCP Europe.

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Kupp regularly uses Hirst in his courses as an example of how to set up a successful business model.

“He has a controlled way of breaking taboos that’s been successful financially,” said Kupp. “Add to that, he’s very innovative on all the fundamental strategic questions a business needs to answer: Who do you serve as a customer? What do you offer as a product? And how do you deliver that product?” said Kupp, who also wrote the book, “The Fine Art of Success,” on what the world of business can learn from contemporary artists such as Hirst.

Here are five ways Hirst has bridged the business and art world and made a hefty profit doing it:

He targets customers with means who want a recognizable product

Hirst’s most recent stunt to let buyers choose the original or an NFT and burn the originals is what Kupp said is likely “a pure publicity thing” to create buzz around his products among the buyer demographic he is hoping for. It’s not a new idea. Banksy’s “Girl with Ballon” was auctioned off and famously shredded immediately after purchase. The demographic Hirst is going for in this case, said Kupp, probably includes cryptocurrency millionaires, hedge fund managers … really anyone with means who is interested in blockchain, Web3 and, yes, NFTs.”

“When I see who’s collecting him in the past, it’s oil oligarchs from Saudi Arabia and hedge fund managers from New York. You get this super nouveau riche class, and he’s absolutely catering to them.”

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It is buyers that see art as an investment, Kupp said, rather than for people looking to beautify their home: “You invest in a Hirst because the price will go up.” But they’re not so disturbing that most people won’t go for them, he said; they’re just the right amount of controversial.

It’s also about showing the world how much money you have. “You buy a Hirst, you show the world that you can afford a Hirst,” said Kupp.

He knows the benefit of playing with supply and demand

At the height of Hirst’s spot paintings fame (arguably what he’s most well-known for) there was some concern that he (and his assistants who also made them with his direction) might flood the market. Why pay millions for a painting when everyone else has a similar product?

A man hangs a canvas covered in colored dots on a wall

He responded with a catalog laying out exactly how many there were in the collection to calm those who had invested (or who might invest in the future).

Hirst also said the series was complete — a smart move from a business perspective, said Kupp. “He said, that’s it, I’m sick of spot painting — which, from a business perspective, that was quite something [because it created an immediate demand].”

A few years earlier, at a massive Sotheby’s sale of his works — 223 to be exact — called, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” Hirst said he would no longer be making his well-known butterfly paintings and not as many dead animals or spot paintings — driving up demand, the New York Times reported in 2008.

And at an exhibit of Hirst’s at the Tate Modern art gallery in London in 2012, his famous diamond-encrusted human skull, titled “For the Love of God 2007,” was on display in one of the Tate’s vast hallways. But Hirst created an airport-like roped-off queue line so people couldn’t just roam up to it in the hallway to see it; they had to stand in line.

“It’s this whole thing of you have to queue to see this art. There are other ways to display it. Right? The Mona Lisa has no queue in front. So it’s a choice. It’s a social choice: If everybody queues for something, I have to see it too. I think he knows these mechanisms, or he’s very intuitive,” said Kupp. The queue also makes it scarce, he added. If you want to see it, you have to wait — meaning, it’s not going to be available to everyone.

He understands the value of product placement

Some of his most popular pieces aren’t so much about design or beauty but taking something out of context.

Kupp said when he was living in Berlin, he would take his kids to the natural history museum there, which had a number of animals in formaldehyde. But, he said, when Hirst put pieces exactly like that in an art museum, suddenly it’s a controversial, edgy piece of art with a flashy title.


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Another way he’s played with location is when he has refused to put his work in an art museum — saying that is where art gathers dust, said Kupp. And while he went back on that promise — with an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and (as mentioned above) the Tate Modern in London — he seemed to do so on his terms, with the queues and the setup, said Kupp.

He cuts out unnecessary costs

Hirst has often made the controversial decision to skip the art gallery system of selling paintings and sell directly to collectors. It had the triple effect of making him appear to champion the average art buyer and make him more money, said Kupp.

“It seems sad that artists don’t make money,’’ Hirst said on becoming the first artist to sell directly at Sotheby’s. “If you say to someone that galleries take 50 percent, they’d be shocked by that. In any other business, it’s an extortionate amount of money. I’ve never thought it made much sense.’’

“He was saying, I democratize art for everybody,” said Kupp.

He’s constantly evolving to attempt to stay relevant and in the public eye

Hirst is so continuously innovative, said Kupp. He’s “not the first out there, but always twisting and tweaking” to keep himself in the discussion.

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“One of the things I like [about Hirst as a business model] is that people have an opinion about him. Some people love him, and some people hate him. Very few people don’t care. It’s either, ‘Oh, he’s marketing bloodshed, or he’s one of the greatest artists in the world. So it’s polarizing.”

Not only is that helpful for Kupp when trying to engage his students, he said, but also for Hirst trying to stay in the news.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

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