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Damien Hirst – a Triumph over the NFT game but Defeated by ‘Ethereal Money’

Damien Hirst – a Triumph over the NFT game but Defeated by ‘Ethereal Money’

Damien Hirst update. The British artist is once again in the headlines. Having laid off over 60 employees at his Dudbridge studio, Hirst received £15 million of government COVID-19 aid. One year later, the artist announced his new project, – The Currency – a hybrid work that allows buyers to choose whether they wish to keep the physical print of the artwork, or the NFT.


Damien Hirst is a name that has been heard along the lines of controversy before. Whether he has been criticised for his installations or the fact that he does not paint his artworks himself, Hirst has been notoriously known for being a controversial figure who makes controversial art.

At the 1993 Venice Biennale, Hirst exhibited for the first time his Mother and Child, Divided piece, that won him the Turner Prize in 1995. The artwork has often been praised for its exploration of death and religion, however, the chances of appreciating such a morbid artwork are lost when you hear Hirst’s comments when accepting the prize.

‘‘It’s amazing what you can do with an E in A-level art, a twisted imagination, and a chainsaw.” 

Hirst’s arrogance has made him be both despised and adored. A person of his eccentric tastes cannot provoke neutral feelings – that is impossible. 

Artworks such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and A Thousand Yearshave been at the centre of much of the criticism regarding Damien Hirst.

It is clear that art is meant to make you feel something, whether it is positive or negative, and Hirst regularly touches in his work issues present in art regarding subjectivity, human understandings of life and death, or audience experience. However, how far should one go until an artwork is no longer perceived as art?

Animal Rights advocates have thoroughly attacked Hirst. In 2017, at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Hirst exhibited his Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable project. The opening of the piece was targeted by an Animal Rights group, 100% Animalisti, by dumping 40kg of animal manure at the entrance of the venue. 

The piece contained no connection to the animal kingdom, however, in a statement, the activist group argued that:

‘‘Hirst is famous for exhibiting slain animals […] and for the use of thousands of butterflies whose wings are torn and glued on various objects. Death and the taste of the macabre serve to attract attention. Then wealthy collectors such as Saatchi and even the prestigious Sotheby’s artificially inflate the prices of Hirst’s junk. It’s a squalid commercial operation based on death and contempt for living and sentient beings.

[Hirst’s exhibition in Venice] is a further insult to a city of Art, of REAL Art. 100% Animalisti is against the commercial use of the life of our animal siblings’’.

I am obviously not saying throw literal shit at the man, but when events like this occur, it makes you wonder whether the artist does it for the art or for the show.

Damien Hirst’s new currency

The NFT hype has been on for a while now, and who else would join it if not Damien Hirst.

Hirst got the blockchain fever earlier in March when he welcomed cryptocurrencies as a form of payment for The Virtues prints. However, that was just the start of it.

On July 14, Hirst launched a new project called The Currency, where he released 10,000 NFTs, each corresponding to a physical print that was created five years ago, and stored in a vault. Created by hand in 2016, using enamel paint on handmade paper, each print is numbered, titled, stamped, and signed by the artist on the back. 

The works were to be bought, starting from July 29, at the price of $2,000. 

The artworks were sold through the online art marketplace, HENI.

If the buyer chooses to keep the NFT, the print work is destroyed, and vice versa. Collectors have until July 27, 2022, 3 p.m. BST to return the NFT, if not, the paper corresponding paper print will be burned, meaning that they will have chosen to keep the NFT. 

To promote the project, HENI launched two videos – one shows Hirst in a conversation with the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, while the other depicts a conversation about art, money and belief between Hirst and Stephen Fry.

A total of 32,472 people applied for 67,023 NFTs, meaning that the requests were six times over the amount of available NFT.

Clearly, Hirst has done it again.

Through an Instagram announcement, Hirst shared in August, that The Currency had reached $25 million. 

Since the project was launched, over 1,500 secondary sales have been recorded. The highest price that has been paid so far for The Currency is $120,614, for the artwork Yes

At OpenSea’s public data site on the project, we can observe the floor price for each artwork and the trends suggested by HENI.

The Currency allows Hirst to once again play with ideas of subjective meaning, observing the boundaries between physical and digital art.  According to Joe Hage, Hirst’ advisor, this project ‘‘is an attempt of art corrupting money.” 

”I’ve never really understood money… All these things, art, money, commerce, they are all ethereal. It relies not on notebook, or pieces of paper…(but) in belief and trust”

Damien Hirst – The Currency, youtube video

What about his workers?

For someone who claims that money and commerce are ethereal, Hirst is at the moment the wealthiest British artist – with a total net worth of $384 million. This has been at the centre of criticism against him, as he laid off over 60 employees during 2020, despite having received $21 million in government Covid loans. 

After Hirst’s major retrospective at Beijing was cancelled, dismissals of his employees began within the 3D and painting teams in Dudbridge, as well as the health and cleaning staff.

In order to determine who were keeping their jobs, the staff were subjected to a “matrix” system, that scored them on a basis of tests across Adobe programs, attendance records and first-aid training.

According to Science (UK) Ltd, the company that produces Hirst’s art, these tests were in line with business needs, such as who was able to produce and restore formaldehyde and resin works.

As the first layoffs began, staff were placed on the UK furlough system – an attempt by the government to help employers keep their staff, by paying 80% of the wages of staff that couldn’t work up to a monthly cut-off of £2,500. 

While Hirst bought into the furlough scheme, the staff was later told that this system was still draining the company. 

Ironically, Science (UK) Ltd owns over £42 million of unsold artworks, while Hirst’s private collection is worth £183 million.

This would not be the first time a scandal regarding employee layoffs follows Hirst. 

In 2018, Hirst let go of 50 of his employees who worked in IT, finance, as well as in the London and Gloucester studios. A spokesperson for Hirst argued that the changes in the workforce were ‘‘not driven by a need to reduce costs but by his desire to cut the corporate elements of the business to get back to a simpler way of working, focusing on his art”. 

For someone who three years later then decided to jump into the most innovative and complicated art-selling project, that is an interesting way of restructuring a company.


Illustrated by Georgia Harmey

About The Author

Eugenia Pacheco Aisa

Eugenia Pacheco Aisa is an MA History of Art student at University College London (UCL), working on her dissertation about photographer Francesca Woodman. She graduated from UCL in 2020, from a degree in Classical Archaeology and Classical Civilisations. A recent addition to the Mouthing Off Magazine, Eugenia currently manages the visual arts team.

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