‘Benefit of Clergy’: Some notes on Damien Hirst

April 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm (Art and design, celebrity, Jim D, Orwell, post modernism, profiteers, surrealism)

How then do you become Napoleon? There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge, strike an old doctor and break his spectacles — or, anyway, dream about doing these things. Along the lines you can always feel yourself original. After all, it pays! It is much less dangerous than crime…

…One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other  — George Orwell Benefit of Clergy: Some notes on Salvadore Dali – 1944.

I think art is the greatest currency in the world. Gold, diamonds, art are equal things and I think its a great thing to invest in. I love art and you can put it on your wall and enjoy it as well — Damien Hirst, in The Independent 03/04/12.

Mannequin Rotting in a Taxi-Cab (Dali), and…


For the Love of God (Hirst)…which is the more depraved?
The eve of Damien Hirst’s Tate Modern restrospective, seems like an apposite moment to revisit Benefit of Clergy: Some notes on Salvadore Dali, George Orwell’s extraordinary 1944 attack on the great surrealist. Ostensibly a review of Dali’s 1942 autobiography The Secret Life Life of Salvadore Dali, the article is in reality an extended rumination upon the relationship (if any) between art and morality. It’s one of Orwell’s most profound, thought-provoking and powerful essays on a (supposedly) ‘non-political’ subject. The title of the piece (Benefit of Clergy) is a reference to the ancient rule by which the clergy were exempted from trial by a secular court if charged with a felony. Orwell examines the modern equivalent: the idea that art and artists are above ‘normal’ morality if their art is sufficiently “good.” Orwell comments:
“The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it
shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of
what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall
in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration
camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book
or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’
Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the
implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human
The parallels between Dali and Hirst are unmistakable (and I am not the first to note them in the context of Orwell’s great essay): both are (was, in the case of Dali) consumate self-publicists, money-grubbers, fawners before the rich and powerful, and empty, superficial, thoroughly reactionary characters. Both have/had an almost childish desire to shock with a shared prediliction for rotting human and animal remains (Orwell considers Dali’s “most notable characteristic” to have been his “necrophilia“)..
But there is one fundamental difference. Orwell noted that Dali was, despite everything, a “draughtsman of very exceptional gifts“: even the unpleasant (Orwell wrote “diseased and disgusting“) Mannequin rotting in a taxicab is “a good composition.”
Dali, writes Orwell, “is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.”
Self-evidently, the same cannot be said of Hirst, a poor craftsman and non-artist, who doesn’t even physically produce his own work, but employs cheap labour to do it for him. This stuff is artistically worthless, and (at least one critic has predicted) may soon become literally worthless, despite its present astronomical price-tags. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: Hirst’s one, ill-advised foray into painting – wisely not included in the Tate Modern show – was simply pathetic
Hirst is a nauseating little money-grubber and self-publicist. He’s probably not such a foul excuse for a human being as was Dali. But nor is is such a good artist. Or, indeed, an artist at all, other than in the sense of “con-artist.”


  1. SteveH said,

    Can I believe my eyes, a Shiraz article I agree with 100%!

  2. Roger said,

    Obviously doesn’t apply to Hearst who is as lacking in interesting vices as he is in talent, but I’d go so far as to suggest there is often an inverse relationship between a certain sort of artistic genius and being a thorough-going shit.

    Consider Evelyn Waugh – a man so obnoxious that in WW2 his commanding officer had to put an armed guard outside his room at night to prevent his men from murdering him and who ended up being sent to Yugoslavia in the hope that if the Nazis didn’t kill him the communist partisans would.

    Or the reactionary anti-semitic banker TS Eliot, imprisoning his wife in a lunatic asylum for being a social embarrassment.

    Or Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, Fyodor Dostoevsky, WB Yeats or William Faulkner – all awful people with awful views but great writers who will be remembered as long as there is anyone left who can read.

  3. Roger said,

    Interesting Freudian slip of Hearst for Hirst on my part (and you left out the R in para one yourself) – the man can’t even spell his name right.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for that fascinating comment, Roger. I will make use of it when I write my “Great Artistic Shits” article, coming up shortly.

    Thanks also for tipping me off about the typo in para one: now corrected.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Dali in all his unpleasantness; watch this without squirming, if you can:

  6. Roger said,

    You would also have to include Arthur Rimbaud and Lord Byron in any true pantheon of literary shits.

    Plus other than those I mentioned there is a whole cohort of fascist or proto-fascist writers (Ernst Jünger, Henri de Montherlant, Ernst von Salomon, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Francis Stuart, Henry Williamson, Curzio Malaparte, Wyndham Lewis, Gottfried Benn, TE Hulme, Stefan George, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Nikolai Gumilev etc, etc) whose works IMO all stand the test of time vastly better than those of their left-wing contemporaries – not least because they actually do help us to understand fascism’s lethal allure.

    (And seriously – who reads Lion Feuchtwanger or Andre Malraux or Henri Barbusse or Howard Fast now?).

    In fact other than Babel, Platonov and Orwell I’d be very hard put to think of any left-wing novelist whose books I’d save from a burning library,

  7. Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

  8. Clive said,

    Guess it depends exactly what you mean by ‘left wing’. But – Zola? Steinbeck?

    • Jason said,

      Add Victor Serge, George Eliot, Vasily Grossman to that list too. Maybe Koestler.

      • Clive said,

        As I was falling asleep last night I thought: Serge! For me not so much the Men in Prison, etc, books… But The Case of Comrade Tulayev is a masterpiece. IMHO.

        (And I’m pretty sure that when I posted before, M Jelly hadn’t already said ‘Serge’.)

  9. Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

    aye clive – can you believe the thick cunts here hev me in pre-moderation because i once sed something bad about cyclophobia wmoman poster and that. my hooman rights and shit$#%@!!!!!!

  10. Roger said,

    By ‘left-wing’ I suppose I mean fiction writers for whom socialist (but not bourgeois liberal) politics is fairly central to their work.

    So I don’t think George Eliot counts – or for that matter Oscar Wilde.

    Tressell and London would count but I was really only thinking of contemporaries to that cohort of right wing novelists and poets who actually at various times supported fascism or movements that are closely related to it (Eliot’s early flirtation with Action Française or Gumilev’s membership of the White Guards for instance).

    Did think about Serge but I’ve always thought his memoirs much better than his fiction.

    Likewise if I could only save one Grossman book it would probably be his amazing war reporting and journals rather than Life and Fate – which for me doesn’t feel complete because its a continuation of For A Just Cause which nobody has deigned to translate into English – rather as if you just had the second half of War and Peace.

    (I am well aware that For A Just Cause is supposed to be Stalinist hackwork but it would still be nice to judge that for ourselves).

    However haven’t read Forever Flowing yet.

    Koestler certainly does count as a grade A literary shit having raped Michael Foot’s wife and all but IMO Darkness at Noon is seriously overrated (and just plain wrong about the mechanics of terror and confession – Serge’s Case of Comrade Tulayev is far superior in that respect – as is Nineteen-Eighty-Four).

    And Koestler did very publicly renounce the left in The God That Failed and then joined the whole CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter gang – for which see Hitchens

  11. Roger said,

    If you stretch it into the 1950s and 1960s you could also add Mishima to that ‘fascist genius’ list – a truly great novelist but a sado-masochistic nutcase who killed himself when his absurd attempt to incite a military coup failed.

  12. Roger said,

    Also just come across this site which has pdfs of some old left left journals –


    Includes the CPGB’s Labour Monthly and Marxism Today, The CPUSA’s Communist, The New Masses and Ramparts – sadly no Partisan Review or Telos though.

    Always instructive to re-read what the Stalinists were saying about us Trots in 1937.


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