Who knew that Damien Hirst is close friends with the snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan, and attends many of his matches? Hirst, who was watching O'Sullivan win the world championship at The Crucible in Sheffield the other week, compares his friend to legendary figures from his own world. "To me, he's like Picasso," he says. "Or perhaps more like Francis Bacon, because what he does is instinctive. Anything done to the level Ronnie has taken it is art."
Those, like Brian Sewell, who refuse to accept that a formaldehyde-preserved shark constitutes 'art' might take some persuading that potting small, coloured balls, however elegantly, passes the test. But Hirst cites O'Sullivan as an inspiration, and you needn't have Sewell's finely-tutored eye to see how snooker probably influenced his spot paintings. And if you're about to point out that when Hirst began watching the game on TV as a child in Leeds in the late 1960s, it was broadcast in black and white (tremendous fun to watch), please just accept that, whatever you might think of Hirst's offerings, the man does have an imagination.
Whether Hirst and O'Sullivan are brothers in art, they undeniably share a gift for controversy. O'Sullivan, whose dad was not long ago released from prison for murdering a Kray twins' associate, once scandalised the snooker world by gesturing in a rude way with a microphone towards a female reporter. While Hirst claimed that those responsible for 9/11, however wicked, "needed congratulating" for what he also described as a work of art.
He isn't the first celebrated artist with a passion for a sportsman. Sir Peter Blake has a thing for Kendo Nagasaki, a professional wrestler. On an Arena programme from 1992, Blake painted a portrait of the mask-wearing, faux Samurai (otherwise known as Peter Thornley from Stoke-on-Trent). Given that Hirst's painting style has been compared to a first-year art-college student, it's understandable that he's not done the same for O'Sullivan. He paints a dazzling picture of his love for snooker with words alone: "I'm fascinated by the idea of a person being like a machine. I'm interested in the psychological side – players become overcome by the fear of winning. A machine which could play snooker would be brilliant." Someone introduce him to a Wii please.