ENGLISH ARTIST DAMIEN HIRST SEEMS like a real nice, un-self-conscious guy. The day before his big debut at Larry Gagosian's SoHo gallery earlier this month, Hirst, 30, took a pull on a Heineken and said, "I think the moment you become your own idea of yourself, you've lost everything." So it wasn't a snarling, enigmatic artist's persona that packed Hirst's opening with black-clad artsies and such celebrities as David Bowie, John Waters and Anna Wintour. It was the cut-up cows in glass tanks of formaldehyde.
Hey, it could have been worse. Hirst had to postpone this show from last September. "The new cow piece replaces the one I really wanted to do," he said, "the dead cows f---ing, without formaldehyde. We called up the environmental department and told them what we'd have: rotting animals, but with filters to clean the air. They said if you do that, we'll shut you down."
But city bureaucrats couldn't shut down the art world's hope for a succes de scandale, especially in this flat market. Ever since Manet outraged 1865 Paris by painting a prostitute as a goddess-like "Olympia," artists have pushed the envelope of propriety. Back in the dada days, Marcel Duchamp tried to put a urinal in a sculpture show. In the 1960s, Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement, and Hermann Nitsch splattered himself with animal blood and guts. Andy Warhol made paintings in the '70s by peeing on canvases. Jeff Koons rang in the '90s with explicit pictures of himself and his Italian porn-star wife. Each of these gambits caused a little stir and kept the artist's name afloat in the sea of novelty.
It's tougher to shock the bourgeoisie today-what with Jerry Springer's TV show, A. M. Homes's novels and Ultimate Fighting on pay-per-view. The New York Times critic found he liked Hirst's show. Advertising mogul Charles Saatchi has reportedly bought the cow piece for a cool half million. Oh, there was some sniffing at the opening--by a writer who said he'd have to delay his dinner reservations a couple of hours, and an artist who claimed he did a dead dog 20 years ago. …