“Well, it’s just luxury goods, isn’t it?” said an old- line modernist dealer as we milled around outside the White Cube gallery on the opening day of the Damien Hirst show, Beyond Belief. The dealer was, of course, referring to “For the
Love of God”, his diamond-studded skull, and his somewhat nettled tone reflected that of many art worlders I had seen at both of London’s White Cubes, Hoxton and Mayfair.

Hirst’s insolent wit, to say nothing of the skull’s headline-hogging, Guinness World Records-ready £50m price-tag, can provoke such reactions. But Hirst is nothing if not consistent in his obsessions. In “With Dead Head”, an early photographic piece, he is elfishly grinning cheek to cheek with an elderly man’s severed head: a still- upholstered skull.

He was wearing a skull T-shirt when I interviewed Hirst in 2004 concerning the auction of work he had made for Pharmacy, his defunct Notting Hill restaurant. In September 2005 he contributed a catalogue essay for Skullduggery, a show by Steven Gregory at the Cass Sculpture Foundation. “My own personal favourites are the real human skull and bone pieces where. . . he uses decoration to try to deal with the complexity of death, a brave attempt to celebrate the unimaginable,” Hirst wrote.

So the diamond skull is not just a nifty notion.

Not long beforethis, Charles Saatchi had let it be known that he proposed to sell off a number of his Hirsts. They were early works. Hirst was well aware of the damage such a sell-off can do. “I was very lucky because I had made a bit of money on my last show with Jay [Jopling of White Cube]. And Jay helped me out enormously. Jay said, ‘The prices are too high for the work.’ But I said I wanted them. So Jay worked with me to buy them for myself. Instead of coming halves with me on the whole deal.”

Saatchi had three medicine cabinet pieces. “I had sold them for, like, £500 and got them back for, like, half a million,” Hirst said.

The buy-back cost more than £8m. It was a huge risk. “That was a great landmark in Damien’s career,” says Frank Dunphy, the artist’s business manager. “That sent an amazing message. To collectors. To everybody.”

The Pharmacy auction was at Sotheby’s, London. Dealers in blue-chip art such as the Nahmads waded in. The auction netted Hirst £11.1m. Within a few years he had made The Sunday Times Rich List, a situation he clearly enjoys hugely.

Hirst’s most visible work had been his “spot” paintings, begun in 1990, and the “spin” pieces, which he began in 1992. The perception was that he was coasting. Then, in April 2005, he showed The Elusive Truth, at the Gagosian Gallery in New York: photo-realist renditions of images he had collected, painted by his assistants, with Hirst himself providing quality control.

This is a venerable picture-making strategy but Hirst’s off-handedness got up the nose of New York. The show was panned by two powerful critics, Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times and Jerry Salz, who described it as a branding exercise, “like Prada or Gucci”, in The Voice and on Artnet. Sales were unaffected – the show was said to have largely sold out for $30m before it opened – but it was widely felt that this would be a body blow to his career.

Not a scratch.

Hirst has become a true phenomenon of the new art world, an artist so heavily collected and widely shown that – like Gerhard Richter, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince – he is virtually critic-proof, barring some catastrophic fall from grace.

Now comes Beyond Belief, a stunning return to form.

The skull made the cover of two national newspapers, the FT being one. The critics wrote paeans. Then the sniping, predictably, began. “Just another show of ‘excessenza’,” noted Jasper Gerard in The Observer; Nick Cohen wrote in the Evening Standard that fake diamonds would have worked just as well. Interesting, but arguable.

Riches and celebrity have become part of the landscape at the upper edge of the art world, for collectors, dealers and artists. Different artists have handled this in different ways. Picasso sopped up the attention but neither money nor fame got into the work whereas Salvador Dali degenerated into kitsch after he was swallowed up by the celebrity culture.

Hirst turned branding to his own ends with the “spot” paintings. Now he has used money and media celebrity as art materials, an integral part of a powerful piece. He has become one of a handful of artists who have altered our notions of what an art career can be and changed the rules of the game.

anthony.haden-guest@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/hadenguest

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