The art world has never really been known for being sensible, but there is a feud going on at the moment in England that must surely rank as one of the most petty and unfathomable squabbles since my school days when Charlie Peerbohm poured green paint on Debbie McMahon’s fingerpainting in first grade. Synopsizing: last year, a 17 year old street artist named Cartrain made a number of satirical collage portraits of the much more famous artist Damien Hirst using copies of some of Hirst’s own images. Hirst took exception to this for reasons unknown and, using his considerable fortune, pulled legal muscle on Cartrain to force him to hand over the portraits (so that they might be disposed of) along with £195 in compensation (the amount of money that Cartrain allegedly made from selling them).

Considering that Damien Hirst is one of the most commercially successful plunderers of popular culture of all time, this seems churlish at best, and downright petulant otherwise.

I’ve never been a great fan of Hirst’s creations. In my view he’s just fine art’s version of a shock jock; he creates things that are supposed to put people’s noses out of joint under the pretense of making insightful or droll commentary. I could never quite put my finger on why his efforts annoyed me so much until one day, after getting brain freeze from a slushy whilst watching the sharks at Sydney Aquarium, it came to me: Damien Hirst’s art has no sense of humour. It is po-faced pretension of the most vacuous kind. And I think Hirst quite possibly believes that he really is saying something profound. This latest episode has pretty much confirmed my suspicions.

Cartrain, on the other hand, is my kinda guy. He does have a sense of humour and he makes interesting and provocative social commentary. He’s not an artistic genius, perhaps, and owes more than a little to Banksy, but heck, he’s a teenager after all – he’s got plenty of years ahead of him to develop. The portrait of Mr Hirst that you see reproduced above, is one by Cartrain that has escaped the iron clutch of Hirst’s moneyed henchmen and, via the blog of art commentator Jonathan Jones, found its way to teh internets.1 Its sarcastic caricature of Hirst is surely well within the purview of artistic witticism. I believe the confiscated portraits are in the same vein.

But the thing that has really enamored me of Cartrain is the revenge that he he has wrought upon Hirst. In July this year, Cartrain visited the Tate Britain and stole a box of pencils from Hirst’s intellectually vapid installation Pharmacy which is on display there. He then created a mock ransom note demanding return of his portraits in exchange for the pencils. The note stated that failure to comply would result in the pencils being ‘sharpened’. Most anyone would consider that fairly amusing – this is not the mindset of a vicious person – but not Hirst, apparently. As one of the wealthiest artists of all time he looks sulky and pathetic as he stands on his assertion that his intellectual property rights have been violated.

And now, in what must be one of the most egregious over-reactions of the decade, the situation has escalated to the point where the police have arrested Cartrain over the stunt, and he has been charged with £10,000,000.00 for ‘damages’ and a further £500,000.00 for theft.2 Translating into American money, that’s over $17 million dollars worth of charges for a box of pencils.3

This whole debacle reminds me of nothing so much as the Metallica/Napster affair in 2000, and Lars Ulrich’s indignant posturing over the ‘damage’ that file sharing was doing to the band’s sales. The outcome of that particular episode was that Ulrich came out looking like an ass and nothing changed except for Napster getting shafted. Metallica certainly isn’t hanging out at the soup kitchen as a result. Similarly, it’s difficult to comprehend Hirst’s disproportionately vehement reaction to Cartrain’s satirical jibe. What the hell does he care? It’s not like he’s going broke anytime soon.

Maybe it’s simply that Cartrain’s portraits are just a little bit too incisive, and the emperor doesn’t like everyone seeing right through his clothes to his cubic zirconia-encrusted skeleton…

  1. As anyone with an ounce of insight would have realised was quite inevitable given the circumstances. Hirst’s attempt to quash dissemination of the portraits looks all the more silly for his failure to understand their ultimate cultural context. []
  2. Cartrain’s father was also arrested, on suspicion of ‘harbouring’ the pencils. []
  3. And I bet the security guard who was on duty that day would have been a lot more attentive if he’d realised he was guarding pencils with that kind of pedigree… []