Damien Hirst is at the top of the modern art food chain

Hirst's pickled tiger shark changed the way I saw conceptualism. His forthcoming Tate retrospective will show how the rest of recent British art is a footnote to his brilliance

I had no job and didn't know where I was going in life when I walked into the Saatchi Gallery in 1992 and saw a tiger shark swimming towards me. Standing in front of Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living in its original pristine state was a disconcerting and marvellous experience. The shark, then, did not look pickled, it looked alive. It seemed to move as you moved around the tank that contained it, because the refractions of the liquid inside which it "swam" caused your vision of it to jump as you changed your angle.

There it was: life, or was it death, relentlessly approaching me through deep waters. It was galvanising, energising. It was a great work of art.

I knew what I thought great art looked like. I doted on Leonardo da Vinci, I loved Picasso. I still revere them both. But it was Hirst's shark that made me believe art made with fish, glass vitrines and formaldehyde – and therefore with anything – can be great. I found his work not just interesting or provocative but genuinely profound. As a memento mori, as an exploration of the limits of art, as a meditation on the power of spectacle, even as a comment on the shark-infested waters of post-Thatcherite Britain, it moved me deeply.

I'm looking forward to Damien Hirst's retrospective at Tate Modern because it will be a new chance to understand the power I have, in my life, sensed in his imagination and intellect. I think Hirst is a much more exciting modern artist than Marcel Duchamp. To be honest, the word "exciting" just doesn't go with the word "Duchamp". Get a load of that exciting urinal!

Picasso is exciting; Duchamp is an academic cult. The readymade as it was deployed by Duchamp gave birth to conceptual forms that are "interesting" but rarely grab you where it matters.

Hirst is more Picasso than Duchamp – the Picasso who put a bicycle seat and handlebars together to create a bull's head. He's even more Holbein than Duchamp – the Holbein who painted a skull across a portrait of two Renaissance gentlemen.

He is a giant of modern art. There is something hilarious about those who pride themselves on their interest in contemporary art, following the latest names from Glasgow and so forth, but sneer at the supposed vulgarity and cynicism of Hirst. This is like saying, in 19th-century Britain, "My goodness, I really love all this great Victorian art we have nowadays, with its sentimental scenes and frock-coated portraits, but I hate that vulgar Turner. What a fraud!"

Hirst stands far above his British contemporaries. The depth of his early work is extraordinary and dazzling. The intensity of his imaginative grasp of reality is unique. He makes art that is about life, and death, and money too, which is another absolute truth of our world – unfortunately. The whole of recent British art is a footnote to his brilliance.

This is sacrilege in the art world right now, because a lot of careers are based on pretending Hirst was just one among many cool artists and that he is now less important than Bob and Roberta Smith, Grayson Perry and other such giants of our moment. But the truth is soon to be revealed at Tate Modern.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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