Hirst milks role as modern art's outrageous hero

Turner Prize: Winner finds support as most ambitious artist of his generation taking on frosty establishment
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Damien Hirst should have won the Turner Prize when he was nominated for it three years ago and I am glad he has won it now. No one has done more to raise the profile of contemporary British art both at home and abroad - and by his outrageously ambitious art works, and energetic ease at dipping and dodging between the role of artist, curator, film director and media maverick, he has fired an entire generation with the belief that, even in the frosty climate of the British art world, anything is possible.

But it is more than a prolific, energetic output and an engaging way with the popular press. Hirst is an extraordinary and serious artist - he produces images that lodge themselves in the psyche and deal with issues that are at the same time mundane and massive. He manages to splice spectacle with profound meditations on who and what we are, whether it's a preserved animal, a cabinet of drugs or medical instruments, or an explosive machine- made painting - his work grabs you by the throat and forces you to engage with it. It also proves that art can be funny, poetic and profound. That's why it gets under so many skins.

Hirst's work is also riddled with contradictions. It is as simple or as complex as you want it to be. He presents a moving target - and he refuses to be pinned down to a single reading. Art buffs can talk about the legacy of Francis Bacon's writhing flesh contained within a geometric frame, the influence of Minimalism and Neo-Geo in Hirst's pristine containers, as well as the whole history of memento mori; or there is the irony of something being killed to be preserved in a liquid that is deadly poisonous.

In winning the Turner, Hirst beat three others to the pounds 20,000 prize. Mona Hatoum made a 12-minute video of her body, outside and in. But mainly in. Footage of the pink internal passages is projected on the floor of a specially constructed cylindrical chamber.

The abstract painter Callum Innes applied turpentine to etch paint from monochrome canvases, which in the case of white paint requires careful scrutiny to detect anything at all.

The fourth nominee, Mark Wallinger, used racing images, including film of four days' royal processions at last year's Ascot.

Our national hostility to mercurial success, high profile or any artist's willingness to play the media game has meant that up to now, Hirst has had a more serious reputation abroad.

Let us hope that winning the Turner will change this, and that the Tate will purchase his Mother and Child Divided (Cow and Calf) - a cow and a calf bisected longitudinally and presented in two parts - so that they will at least have two of his works to put in their new gallery at Bankside. Without Hirst's role in raising the profile of contemporary art in this country it's doubtful that they would have got the grant to build it.

Louisa Buck is an arts journalist and broadcaster