Just a few miles north of Aldeburgh, where we live on England’s East coast, is Southwold, another pretty Suffolk seaside town. They must have looked an unlikely pair that weekend in 1983, foraging for driftwood, swimming in the North sea and eating pigeon. She was elderly and genteel; he was 21, short and stocky and from a poor, one parent family in Leeds. What bound them was art.
The young man had been impressed by Francis Davidson’s show at the Hayward Gallery in London and had come all the way from there to Southwold to visit his widow, this handsome woman, the artist Margaret Mellis. The young man had a passion: “I always wanted to be a famous artist. The only thing I had in life was what I believed, and I built everything on that”. His student years at art school were full of self doubt “I was going nowhere and (my art) was going nowhere… I trashed it all up and swept it into a heap. And that heap of rubbish was my first year at Goldsmith’s. I had this massive fear. Felt I’d failed”. Then came his eureka moment “I realised that art is about life! And I wanted to make art about something important…. to change peoples’ lives”.
He describes his creative thinking which resulted in 1000 Years, the work of art that did indeed change the art world: “What if, what if, what if I had a life cycle in a box? And what if it had a rotting cow’s head? And it was a real head and it had flies on it. Several artistic influences and ideas came together in his subconscious to create this piece. He combined his fascination for death and Francis Bacon, with the commercial popism of Jeff Koons, whose work he had just seen at the Saatchi Gallery. The art work was presented in a large minimalist display case and there too was Margaret’s influence - the found object, not driftwood this time, but a real cow’s head inside the display case - being eaten by flies.
Damien Hirst's - A Thousand years
His fellow students, laughed at it: “You’ve lost your fucking head. It’s shit”, they chided. How then did it become meaningful to the world – how did innovation take place?
In retrospect we can see that all the ingredients for creative intelligence were there. The passion of the young man, Damien Hirst, with a big goal in life who took time and huge effort to gain skills and experiences to master his art. He joined all the dots to seek something new. Artists have done this before and since but they don’t receive the success of this artist. The pivot, as always, is the key.
He was the ringleader of a creative cluster of supportive teachers and students at Goldsmith’s College of Art, who were encouraged by their professor, Michael Craig Martin, to think the unthinkable. But even so, Damien knew he could not rely on his art being taken seriously by the art world “We had to navigate the existing art market or there was no hope” So he changed the rules of the game and curated his own show of Goldsmith’s students. He had to get all the influential art world people to come to it. They wouldn’t unless he personally organised a taxi for each of them to its outlandish venue. Which he did. And they came.
The big pivot began to take off. The most important man in the art world, Charles Saatchi, bought 1000 years. The artist had met the up and coming art dealer Jay Jopling in a pub in Brixton and together they were what Tate needed when its trustee Michael Craig Martin advised on who was young and happening in the art world. – who would be meaningful to young people now - who was in the zeitgeist. The artist won the Tate’s Turner Prize a couple of years later (itself pivoted by being televised on Channel 4). Before long he was taken on by the biggest art dealer in the world, Larry Gagosian , who had himself been pivoted by the older mega art dealer Leo Castelli who was himself pivoted by the influential Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred Barr. Damien Hirst has become the richest artist in the world with a fortune estimated at over £215 million…