Damien Hirst’s Medicine Cabinets: Art, Death, Sex, Society and Drugs

Arthur C. Danto, 2010

Installation view: ‘Medicine Cabinets’, L & M Arts, New York, 2010. Photographed by Tom Powel Imaging Inc., courtesy of L & M Arts © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Damien Hirst’s series, ‘Medicine Cabinets’, projects a certain latter day Pop Art aesthetic – colorful, brash, and familiar to consumers  – and it at the same time connects with the artist’s philosophical preoccupations of birth and death, as well as his deep belief that art heals. Indeed, it is possible to speculate through a kind of syllogism that his faith that art cures may explain why he created the series:

It is now culturally acceptable for medicine cabinets to be

works of art.

Medicine cabinets are filled with medicines, i.e. substances that   


Hence art is capable of healing.

The question, of course, is whether art other than medicine heals. In the case of Hirst’s ‘Medicine Cabinets’ it is beyond contention that organized containers of medication made arresting works of art.

The series began with a suite of twelve cabinets, which Hirst submitted as his thesis at Goldsmith’s College of Art in London, in 1989. The brashness of the work is conveyed chiefly through its title, which Hirst borrowed from the Sex Pistols’ UK debut album of 1977, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’, which has twelve tracks, each furnishing its title to one of the cabinets: ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘LiarSeventeenHolidays’, ‘No Feelings‘Enemy’,Sinner, etc. On Hirst’s testimony, none of the track- titles has anything to do with the specific medications displayed behind the glass in the different cabinets, though it might occur to someone that ‘No Feelings’ might designate a preponderance of tranquilizers, or ‘Sinner’ with displayed condoms. Nor, strictly speaking, do the handsomely crafted cabinets really embody the spirit of the punk anthem. One of the Sex Pistols told an interviewer that  "Actually we're not into music. We're into chaos.”[1] Whatever Hirst’s personal relationship to Punk, the ‘Medicine Cabinets’ embody taste, judgment, and wit. To be effectively pharmaceutical, the arrangements must at least convey a sense of antiseptic orderliness. Hirst disclosed in these works that there is an unmistakable pharmaceutical aesthetic.

A further aspect of what I consider brashness is the punning connection between drugs in the life lived by the Sex Pistols and their admirers – drugs as agents of getting stoned and turned on and reaching highs; and drugs as agents of healing and serving to maintain blood and sugar levels, with medicine cabinets as emblems of sanitary and hygienic order. A further dimension of the work’s brashness may connect with the reassuring design of the boxes and vials of medications neatly arrayed on the shelves. The packaging in which the first kind of drugs are purveyed could hardly be more different than the packages in which over-the-counter drugs are presented to world, attractively enough designed so that consumers will reach out for this rather than that, instead of the plastic sachets the addicted clutch in exchange for greasy bank-notes. I suppose the ‘Medicine Cabinet’ exemplify a kind of fantasy of a decriminalized drug culture, where what the French call stupefiants  are displayed like cigarettes or chocolate bars, even if acquiring them requires prescriptions.

Mainly, however, the ‘Medicine Cabinets’ lend themselves as a political metaphor of orderliness and of how things ought to be, which is at the antipodes of the kind of world that the Sex Pistols saw themselves as born into. One of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon, expressed their perception of things with a vivid accuracy:

“Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down, there was trash on the streets, total unemployment – just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks...then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all. Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us.”[2]

From this perspective, one might say, Hirst’s ‘Medicine Cabinets’ and ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’, are politically equivalent criticisms of the way British society was and perhaps still is perceived by British youth, with this difference: the Sex Pistol’s anthem is an in-your-face picture of the way things are, while the ‘Medicine Cabinet’ are Utopian images of an ideal society. Both, I suppose, are exaggeration of what is really socially possible, but there is a sense in which Hirst’s is a distant cousin, if we remember that we are in the realm of metaphor, of Socialist Realism.

What makes a ‘Medicine Cabinet’ art, other than the craft that goes into its cabinetry, is the aesthetics with which the containers of medicines are placed relative to one another. This is discussed in various interviews that Hirst has granted, in which he postulates a parallel between medicine and art. Or at least a parallel in the way people think – or don’t think – about medicine and art. “I cannot understand,” he says, ”Why some people believe completely in medicine and not in art, without questioning either.”[3] Hirst often cites his “mum” in this context:

“I was with my mum in the chemist’s; she was getting a prescription. And it was, like, complete trust on the sculpture and organizing shapes, one level in something she’s equally in the dark about. In the medicine cabinets there’s no actual medicines in the bottles. Its just completely packaging and formal sculptures and organized shapes. My mum was looking at the same kind of stuff in the chemist’s and believing in its completely. And then, when looking at it in an art gallery, completely not believing in it. And as far as I could see it was the same thing. And for a long time I’d seen that. I knew that was going on. And I was thinking ‘If I could only make art like that – that did that. And then in the end, I just decided to do that directly. I’ve always loved the idea of art maybe, you know, curing people. And I have this kind of obsession with the body.”[4]

As nearly as I can tell, he wanted to make medicine cabinets that looked exactly what he saw in pharmacies, much as Andy Warhol made boxes that simulated real grocery boxes. But he seems not to have taken notice that the array of medicine containers from cabinet to cabinet was different from one another, leaving room for improvisation.

"I chose the size and shape of the cabinet like a body. I wanted it to be kind of human, like with an abdomen and a chest and guts. There was something human about the shape and size when I made it with a smaller bit at the top like a head. Then I played around with the idea of putting the head at the top and those for your feet at the bottom and in doing something like that. I started trying to find out what all the drugs were."

In one of his remarks, Hirst says “The shelves look like kind of a skyline. I think that whole installation is about civilization or something.” As he observes in a conversation with the French artist, Sophie Calle, he says that he arranges them to look exactly as they do in the chemist’s. But as art, his arrangement has to mean something the workaday medical cabinet doesn’t. The work has to be interpreted.

I like all the readings, if you see them as power structures, a society, or as a metaphor for the human body or even as a comment on capitalism or if you see them like a Schwitters or a Cornell or pro-medicine or anti-medicine… they are about all these things even if you just think it’s weird to see them as a gallery.

But in a compelling anecdote, Hirst describes the response of a viewer who has some understanding of arranging medicines in actual medicine cabinets – where she obviously has in mind cabinets in a physician’s office – is not at all guided by aesthetic criteria of color or shape. The viewer said she could not “work it out,” after staring at a cabinet of his for some time. She meant that the arrangement would make no clinical sense to someone who understood medicines – why this drug is here and that drug is there.

I was unaware of what the drugs do. I just put like with like. So I quite liked the idea that to a hell of a lot of people they looked so confident, but then to somebody who knows what’s going on, you know, it’s a mess. I suddenly realized that there is a limit to the way this work could communicate and that if I’d have thought about that I could even have convinced her.

To have convinced her, I guess, would be  to arrange the contents of a cabinet as a pharmacist, or a doctor with a certain kind of practice, would arrange things.  But would this make a curative difference? 

One of his interviewers asks “Art can heal?” And Hirst replies:

“I think the thing that is forgotten is that we are going to die… They can only heal you for a minute. When they are giving you drugs to keep you alive there is a point where you have got to say its not worth it, I think. The two things we don’t know anything about, the two things we are not taught in schools are birth and death. Which is completely ridiculous. Sex and death are just not taught. And it seems like the two most important things [is] where we came from and where we are going. It is alright to give people drugs, but I think that you would be better off educating them about sex and death.”[5]

But this really changes the subject. The trick is not to emulate someone who places the drugs a certain way because of his or her practice. Hirst is after something much deeper. To Sophie Calle, Hirst said “I’m going to die and I want to live forever.” Calle replies: “You obviously don’t think that drugs can cure this problem, if indeed it is a problem, but do you think that art can?” Hirst answer is “No, but I’m not going to stop trying. I know its impossible to believe it, and impossible for me to not…If I follow my ideas about art through to their final conclusion I realize I shouldn’t make art, but I still do.”[6]

Good organization is a precept of medical practice. But the obliteration of death is beyond our thinkable means. The ‘Medicine Cabinets’ make a beautiful metaphor for a society worth living in. It would mean removing the way things are as a reason for druggy rebellion. And it explains Hirst’s further exploitation of pharmacological structures, such as ‘Pharmacy’ [1992] he erected as a work of art, and his restaurant, called Pharmacy [1998 - 2003], where the Young British Artists, together with their followers, ate and gabbed on stools designed by Hirst to look like pills.


[1] John Robb, Punk Rock: an Oral History. Ebury Press, 2007. P. 148. Cited in “Sex Pistols.” Wikepedia.

[2] op.cit. p. 97. Cited in Wikipedia.

[3]  Conversations between Damien Hirst and Sophie Calle. In Jay Jopling.Damien Hirst .London: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1991. [Page unnumbered.

[4] Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn. On the Way to Work. London: FF, 2002.p.25.

[5] Damien Hirst. “Pharmaceutical Heaven.” In Damien Hirst.  Napoli: Exhibition Catalog, Museo Archeological Nazionale.

[6] “Conversation between Damien Hirst and Sophie Calle. op. cit.

‘Damien Hirst’s Medicine Cabinets: Art, Death, Sex, Society and Drugs’ originally published in Damien Hirst ‘The Complete Medicine Cabinets’ (Other Criteria/L & M Arts, 2010) on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Medicine Cabinets’, L & M Arts, New York, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Arthur C. Danto.

Arthur C. Danto — A Biography

Arthur C. Danto is an analytical philosopher, whose entire academic career was spent at Columbia University in New York City, where he is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy. His main achievement is a systematic study in five volumes on the subject of representation, beginning with Analytical Philosophy of History (1965); Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge (1968), and Analytical Philosophy of Action (1973). The fourth volume, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981), led to a second career, beginning in 1984, as art critic for The Nation. A collection of his critical essays won the National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism in 1992; and another, The Madonna of the Future (2000) won the Prix Philosophie in Paris in 2003. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the artist, Barbara Westman.