Roll up, roll up: a $100 bill by Damien Hirst. Yours for pounds 1,000

DAMIEN HIRST rides again. The arch-blagger, Soho lad-celebrity, polymath and(lest we forget) artist, is to design a cover for a book, a limited edition re-issue of the Seventies cocaine trade potboiler Snowblind by Robert Sabbag.

Hirst's cover is to be made of cocaine paraphernalia - mirror, credit card and a genuine $100 bill - and is to be launched next month. Jamie Byng, the go-ahead young editor at publisher Canongate, says: "It's the most off-the-wall book this country has seen in a decade." Already most have been reserved through private sale, despite it costing a stiff pounds 1,000.

There is more in the 33-year-old's typically busy schedule. A Hirst image - of a smiley-face badge lying on soil - is also to do the honours as the cover of Happy Like Murderers, a book by Gordon Burn about the mass murderers Rosemary and Frederick West, due to be published in October. And there are also rumours of an imminent vodka advert directed by the artist, which is to carry the line Absolut Hirst.

Indeed, this year constitutes an anniversary for Hirst, since it was 10 years ago that the young art student made his name as the curator of Freeze, the warehouse exhibition of fellow Goldsmith's College students' work that kick-started the YBA phenomenon and made his name.

Since then, Hirst has gone ballistic, confounding the critics who have been predicting his demise since he burst onto the scene. Indeed, he has even won some nay-sayers over: the late Dan Farson sniffily referred to him as more pop star than artist, but was later to revise his opinion having found Hirst to be an amiable drinking partner. Even Brian Sewell, plummy-voiced scourge of the contemporary art world, has reviewed Hirst's work with more equanimity than one might have expected. And The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living - also known as the pickled shark, which is still Hirst's magnum opus - was taken seriously by many art world commentators as an example of the artistic tradition of memento mori: a reminder of mortality.

Charles Saatchi backed a winner when he bought into Hirst, whose stock rose immensely when he won the Turner Prize in 1994.

"It's amazing what you can do with an E grade in A level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw," said Hirst at the time.

Rather than resent this cheeky success, the art world still seems to dote on Hirst, who was rejected by St Martin's School of Art in London, to become the biggest thing in Brit art since David Hockney in the Sixties.

"He is a kind of impresario, able to turn his hand to anything," says one gallery commentator, who prefers to stay anonymous. "He has such an ability to inspire."

To her, Hirst is a little like Andy Warhol, who turned his own celebrity into his subject matter, and also a little like Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon, who are appreciated for their larger-than-life personalities and lifestyles as well as their work. She adds that he has been an inspiration to the younger generation. "I would say he has opened it up for younger artists. Damien has had an enormous impact."

That he has entered the canon was evident when he was voted onto BBC Radio 3's list of 100 people constituting the Cultural Elite of the 20th century. It was certainly a controversial choice: panellist AS Byatt said: "No one was arguing for Hirst," and Professor John Carey argued that it was appalling to overlook figures such as Sigmund Freud in favour of Hirst.

Richard Wentworth, the sculptor, taught Hirst and remembers him as a "cheeky chappy - which decent art students often are". Like others, Wentworth says that Hirst "is not someone that people should imitate". But he applauds his "fantastic penetrative power" and the fact that he is a kind of mascot figure for Nineties Britain.

Many vilify Hirst. He has had the accolade of having work sabotaged: his Away From The Flock - also known as the pickled sheep - was ruined by an artist with black ink. His "oik-in-the-Ritz" bad boy act turns off as many people as it excites. And some of his work, such as his "dot" and "spin" paintings, have been seen as derivative of Sixties Op Art painting.

Nor have his ventures into film been particularly remarkable. Hanging Around, from 1996, was previewed at the Hayward Gallery but failed to make much impact. David Sylvester, doyen of art critics, lambasted its "mediocrity, banality, self-indulgence and lack of self-criticism". Better received was his bawdy promo for Blur's Country House.

But his sheer fame has survived the knocks, as if he is bigger than his various productions. Such is Hirst's celebrity that acolytes refer to him simply as "Damien" and everyone knows who they mean. His Groucho Club friends include the louche drinking chums, Alex James of Blur and Keith Allen, who landed us with the alternative football anthem Vindaloo, released on Hirst's own record label, Turtleneck Records.

With his foodie counterpart, Marco Pierre White, he refurbished the musty old restaurant, Quo Vadis - conveniently close to the Groucho - transforming it into a shrine to the work of fellow artists such as Sarah Lucas. Then there is his Notting Hill diner, Pharmacy, which was told to drop the name by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on the basis that it might confuse the public. It is now called Archy Ramp.

His home life seems to be fairly secure, too. Hirst is married to an American jewellery designer, has one son called Connor and houses in Chelsea and Devon.

It is probably too early for Hirst to have a retrospective, though last year, the interactive book I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now was published by Booth- Clibborn Editions, which made reference to his previous artworks but primarily operated as a kind of memento of his personality cult. For behind all his various productions, that is what Hirst primarily has to offer.

But is he

any good?

The

Critics

Decide

YES

SAYS RICHARD SHONE

"Like lots of great artists of the past, Damien Hirst likes to do all kinds of things. He's got an extremely fertile, sometimes mischievous, but essentially serious mind and I think he'll go on expanding for as long as he wants. He is a very important figure in contemporary art in that he has been a great permission giver and a great liberator. He's never been a pussyfooter. If he wants to tackle big, big subjects he'll go ahead and do it, whereas a lot of English artists are a little too tentative, a little too polite. He's ambitious and he's serious. He makes extremely arresting and unforgettable images with big and engrossing themes. Once you've seen a Hirst you never forget it."

Richard Shone is art critic and associate editor of `The Burlington Magazine'

NO

SAYS BRIAN SEWELL

"It's possible that Damien Hirst has run his course as an artist and that he has nothing more to say. He has turned into an entrepreneur and at the end of it there will be nothing which is of any aesthetic value or interest. It will be a successful business and that's it. It's very easy for any aesthetic impulse to slip away from the Hirsts of this world if they fail to nourish it. He has done no serious work for five years or so. He's quite clearly got a court and the courtiers are all people who tell him he's marvellous, which is doing him no good. I'd now be very surprised if he could do anything other than come up with gimmicks."

Brian Sewell is art critic of the `Evening Standard'

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