Matt Hancock in front of Damien Hirst's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

Why Damien Hirst is the perfect artist for the pandemic

Damien Hirst’s work encapsulates the sterility, isolation and obsession with death of these times, says Alys Denby

Artillery Row

One of the few cultural venues that remains open is Matt Hancock’s Instagram feed. For months the Health Secretary has been posting videos of himself addressing the nation in front of a Damien Hirst portrait of the Queen. That this is the picture he has chosen as the backdrop for his communiques is telling – and not just because it’s a “spin” painting.

Damien Hirst is the perfect artist for the pandemic, encapsulating the sterility, isolation and obsession with death of these times. That a minister with Hancock’s dad-dancing energy, in a government characterised by Brexity patriotism, wishes to be associated with him is an irony that I think he would enjoy.

This particular painting, entitled Beautiful Portrait, The Queen has an interesting backstory. Before it popped up in Hancock’s office in the Department of Health, it had never been shown in public. Hirst donated the work – made using a spinning machine – directly to the Government Art Collection in 2015, after officials approached him looking to buy a piece, only to discover they couldn’t afford to. Its acquisition was buried in annual reports and later revealed by The Telegraph.

Collecting and displaying art isn’t just a matter of personal taste, it’s a political act

Ministers can choose works from the GAC to decorate their offices, and you can see why this one might have appealed to Hancock. The sickly-sweet colours and graphic style reflect the fun-loving and occasionally attention-seeking personality of a man who belts out Queen on the karaoke at Tory conference. As Culture Secretary, Hancock was better known as a champion of technology than a lover of the arts – even creating his own app – so perhaps he appreciated Hirst’s automated production techniques. One of the Health Secretary’s more endearing qualities is that he’s fundamentally quite uncool, and the same could be said of an artist who tore up convention in the 90s and now sells to the super-rich.

But collecting and displaying art isn’t just a matter of personal taste, it’s a political act. Early on in her premiership Margaret Thatcher undertook a rehang of the pictures in Downing Street, replacing what she described as “very inadequate paintings” with great portraits of British heroes like Nelson and Wellington. Reaching further back, Charles I amassed one of the finest collections in Europe, buying works from French, Italian and Spanish painters and portraits that trumpeted the godlike powers of the monarchy. After he was tried and executed, his treasures were sold off by Parliament. This wasn’t just to pay off Civil War debts; it was rejection of the decadence and dodgy catholic connections of the previous regime. A similar destructive, revolutionary impulse drove last year’s attacks on imperialist statues.

So what are the politics of Hirst’s painting and its many appearances in Hancock’s videos thanking the NHS and exhorting us to obey the rules? Well it’s a portrait of the Queen. In its current context it’s tempting to read it is as an uncomplicated message of royal deference. But Hirst is a complicated artist. So it’s also a portrait of the Queen that’s been defaced by being placed in a spin machine and splattered with paint. It’s reminiscent of the cover art for the Sex Pistols single God Save The Queen, which shocked audiences in the 70s. These days ageing punks advertise butter, and attitudes to the monarchy have changed – but that doesn’t mean this portrait is a totally sincere expression of love of country, even if the Privy Councillor who has it on his wall would like it to be.

And it’s not just punk that Hirst is alluding to in this painting; it’s pop art too – and pop art has no principles. Andy Warhol said that if you wanted to know about him, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Like Warhol’s screen prints of celebrity icons, including Elizabeth II, there’s an essential vacuousness to this portrait. An apt choice for a politician who wants to project a brand (cool Britannia!) without saying anything about themselves.

Like Warhol’s screen prints of celebrity icons, there’s an essential vacuousness to this portrait

Critics have said this painting marks Hirst’s transformation from the bad boy of British art to a fully paid-up member of the establishment. According to The Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke, “It is the last subject you might expect from one of the Young British Artists most notable for the shock tactics in making art to focus on the monarch.” He added, “The broader context of Hirst and his career is that in the eyes of many critics and people within contemporary art he has fallen from grace.” Now that this painting has enlivened photos of Hancock sticking a swab up his nose, the transition is surely complete?

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, 1992 (via mbarroso)

Not quite, I would argue. Back in 2008 Hirst smashed the record for the most money ever made in a single artist auction, raking in more than £111 million on the same day Lehman Brothers collapsed. For many that sale epitomised the recklessness, wealth and unaccountability that led to the financial crash. In 2020, talent, luck and sheer brass neck has once again brought Hirst into public consciousness at the exact right moment.

His work captures the spirit of this bleak age, and it’s worth looking at it again from the new perspective the pandemic has given us. Beneath the flashy blankness there’s always the spectre of mortality. Francis Bacon and his post-war vision of man’s violence and bestiality is as powerful an influence on Hirst as shiny, consumerist Warhol.

In his Pharmacy installation, cabinets stacked with neat boxes of little pills surround bowls of honeycomb and an electric insect-o-cutor. The honey lures flies to their instant death, and medicine makes us believe we have a line of defence against the onslaught of disease – the virus has shown that we don’t. And then there’s the loneliness and isolation of lockdown, themes that also find expression in Hirst’s work. The Acquired Inability to Escape, an office desk chair in a thick glass cell, is a painfully accurate illustration of the existential malaise of a life spent working from home with no prospect of recreation or respite.

Damien Hirst poses in front of his artwork entitled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” in the Tate Modern art gallery on 2 April 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Just as Hirst brings together the visceral and the bland – and politicians often combine superficial charm with ruthless opportunism – boredom and fear define the age of Covid-19. A shark in a box is a sleek, seductive object but it’s also a corpse. Likewise, we engage with the pandemic through the emotionless medium of maths. It’s all about controlling the R, rolling out the vaccines and watching the death toll tick inexorably up. But, of course, behind every number is an individual tragedy.

The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is the title of Hirst’s shark, but it’s also a pretty good description of how it feels to contemplate the scale of the catastrophe we’re living through. That’s certainly what I’ll be thinking about next time I watch one of Matt Hancock’s videos.

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