Is Damien Hirst a Serial Plagiarist?

Is Damien Hirst a Serial Plagiarist?

Damien Hirst has been accused of a lot of things in his day — from peeing in the sinks of posh Soho clubs in his early years to, of late, making "ugly, ugly, ugly" paintings — and one of the more persistent allegations has been that the bad-boy YBA is a little too quick to steal other artists' ideas. Now this complaint has been vociferously resurrected by Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckist movement, who is accusing Hirst of plagiarizing at least 15 of his most famous works, including his medicine cabinets, spin paintings, diamond-encrusted skull, and pickled shark.

While only eight of the claims, which Thompson makes in an article published in The Jackdaw arts newsletter, are new — and while the tone of the Stuckists, a revanchist group opposed to abstract and conceptual art, is generally hysterical and zany — some of the pieces are actually very similar to their alleged sources. Hirst's medicine cabinets, of course, reflect Joseph Cornell's, his spot paintings echo the work of John Armleder and the grids of Gerhard Richter (which in turn echo Ellsworth Kelly) — but less familiar may be the convincing debts he seems to owe Hans Haacke, Robert Dixon, a 1980s Christmas card, and even Artnet's Walter Robinson

Forming the core of the article, Thomson highlights the oft-toutedsimilarities between works by Hirst and those by his fellow artist and longtime acquaintance John LeKay, which predate them. Many of their pieces do bear an uncanny resemblance, such as LeKay’s 1993 skullscovered in crystals (titled "Spiritus Callidus," one moniker for the devil) and Hirst’s 2007 "For the Love of God," a skull covered in diamonds. (Though, of course, embellishing skulls with precious materials is an ancient practice predating both men by centuries.) Then there is the interest they share in anatomical models and crucified animals.

Less interesting is the claim that Hirst's famous 1991 piece "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" was inspired by a stuffed shark that hung on the wall of an electrical supply store. Last we checked, there was no law against locating one’s muse in a stuffed fishing trophy. Plus, while issues of intellectual property theft still have some weight in the art world when it comes to profiting from the ideas of working fellow artists, the general acceptance of appropriation and a mutual image culture tempers the zing of such allegations.

Thomson, who is concerned primarily with issues of originality, told the Guardian, "Hirst is a plagiarist in a way that would be totally unacceptable in science or literature.” LeKay, meanwhile, says he won't be seeking compensation from Hirst because of a recent interest in Buddhism. But in the Jackdaw article, he cites some strange evidence, apparently in support of Thomson's plagiarism claims: "One time in the taxi going to Ashley Bickertons house, he [Hirst] said that he thought he was becoming me. Talking and acting like me. It was very strange... I thought he was mentally ill at that point or on coke."