Stick A Fork In It, Damien Hirst: You're Done

Why it is time for British art to leave its bad boy behind.

Alexander Menden


LONDON – “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce,” late art critic Robert Hughes once said of Damien Hirst’s statue The Virgin Mother.

A new miracle, called “Verity,” now stands -- all 20 meters and 25 tons of it -- overlooking the Bristol Channel for local residents and visitors to the port of Ilfracombe to behold.

The bronze statue depicts a pregnant woman, the right side of whose body is skinless thus revealing the fatty tissues of a breast, muscles and tendons, and half of the unborn baby she is carrying. Unlike "The Virgin Mother," this pregnant woman holds a sword in her left hand, pointed at the North Devon sky.

This pathetic gesture seems to mark a wish on the part of Hirst to become some kind of official state artist – indeed, a good location for "Verity" would have been near the atrocious new Bomber Command Memorial at London’s Hyde Park Corner.

As Guardian critic Jonathan Jones points out, Hirst’s dangerously monstrous, pretentious piece of kitsch is reminiscent of “the huge female figure that crowns the Stalingrad memorial” – a monument in Volgograd, Russia, commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad.

A dark age

Hirst made modern British art, and he has destroyed it. Don't you understand? This time is going to be remembered as what Hirst is making it, with his bronze statues and hideous daubs – a dark age for British art,” Jones writes.

It’s a gloomy point of view. And while Hirst is without a doubt the most ingenious self-marketer since Andy Warhol, to give him the central position in British contemporary art is not only defeatist – it’s wrong.

There are enough artists in his generation -- Liam Gillick, Rachel Whiteread, Jeremy Deller, to name just three – to fill that position. That their names are perhaps less well known than that of the consummate PR strategist and crafty businessman that is Hirst, is irrelevant.

What’s more, the British art scene has for years been producing young artists for whom neither Damien Hirst nor his generation are a gauge or a model. History continues with them. Which doesn’t change the verdict about Hirst that many reached well before "Verity" was installed in Ilfracombe: he can no longer be taken seriously as an artist.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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