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Peter Owen Nelson Headshot

Damien Hirst Has No Assistants

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"Hirst is essentially an ideas man. The ideas he hatches in his head are converted into artworks by a team of assistants that, until recently, numbered 150." -- The Guardian

As an art collector, I can no longer stomach these exaggerated claims about the contemporary artist Damien Hirst. These lies have been proliferated and paraded long enough, and as a friend of Damien it pains me to confess what I am about to expose, at the risk damaging his career and our rapport, but here it goes:

Damien Hirst has no assistants.

I know it sounds as if I've just told you the Mona Lisa has no smile or the Leaning Tower of Pisa has no Pisa or Michelangelo's David has no Goliath, but it's true: Damien Hirst has no assistants. He does all his art all by himself. The man is a machine.

Sure, go to his studio and you will see assistants -- a bustling hive of them -- presumably answering phones, stretching out canvas, preserving sharks in formaldehyde in Hirst's trademark style, and proudly showing off perfectly forged John Hancocks of the master himself in preparation to sign certificates of authenticity.

But the phone conversations? All staged -- no one is on the other end. The sharks? One word: dolphins. The stretching of canvas? As it turns out, no one knows what that looks like. And the signatures? Authentic.

Hirst puts in twenty-two hour days, seven days a week, typically including painting a dozen works of art, installing a gallery show in London, mining diamonds in Botswana for his skull sculptures, and twilling cotton into denim for his Levi's line. He smelts ore -- but who doesn't?

His most generous daily act consists of making 20-30 unfinished artworks unrecognizable of his hand that he gives his assistants to pass off as their own. This last item of business allows the assistants to whine and groan about how they hope to complete "their" paintings someday once "my fucking boss finally gives me some time to pursue my own artistic dreams instead of his." This last bit provides an important sheen of legitimacy to the operation.

How do I know all this? I went undercover and became an assistant. I wanted to get embedded at the artist's workshop and witness first-hand what his process entailed and also I needed the money...bad.

The first day, I offered to mix his paints. Damien shook his head, "Please, just relax. I can't be clearer about this: There's no work to be done here." I later tried to fix my own lunch in the employee kitchen but was thwarted, again: Hirst, in a lunch lady cap, was already serving the staff a perfectly seasoned boeuf bourguignon. An assistant nudged me, "Just wait for Escargot Thursdays. No one does a garlic sauce like this guy." The next day, I watched him make a spin painting out of the leftovers. He gave it to me. I sold it at auction for $3,000,000.

After a few weeks, I confronted Hirst, telling him I was going public with his fraud. I asked him, "Why bother hiring assistants when they don't do anything?" He replied, "They do something. They make people believe I do nothing. Without them, I'd just be another modern artist. What makes my art different from someone else's is that people think my art is done by someone else."

He pleaded with me not to expose any of this, but in my heart I knew the right thing to do. I had to draw the line of my own responsibility. But being short on time, I may have hired one of Hirst's assistants to draw it for me.