Contemporary contention

The Damien Hirst retropsective and musings on the contemporary art experience.

Damien Hirst is not an artist who is naturally uppermost in my thoughts – he gets placed there by perpetual media coverage, and now permanent enough to be cited in the end chapters of art history books. He is in the air again due to a retrospective on at the Tate, and the whole Hirstian iceberg has floated in front of my Titanic once more. Like him or not, the iconic shark-in-a-case once seen cannot be unseen. Nor can flies buzzing around a cow’s head, pharmacies, spots, bejewelled skull, butterfly collages and cut open sheep. Hirst - Butterfly pictureDamien’s lexicon works rapidly on the conscience, and sticks fast. Perhaps these things should get me pondering on life, death, the universe and everything – and very especially death, but I’m too distracted by the troublesome question of my relation with contemporary, conceptual, “shock” art. Is there any value in it, was there once but it’s now worn off, am I trying to find depth where there is only “what you see is what you see”, is the market value getting in the way of the raw poetry, is artwork that should be ephemeral, mad and dangerous now too corporate, collected and habitual?
[Pic courtesy of Jen Deppe Parker]

So now it’s got me thinking about the wider philosophy of art, and what our expectations of it are. The art-going experience now comes in so many different shapes and guises, if you’re prepared to open your mind wide enough to let them in and acknowledge them as art. We can’t possibly expect the same experience from such divergent things, and directly comparing a renaissance painting with a Fontana slashed canvas, or with a Rachel Whiteread cast of a room – doesn’t seem constructive at all. There are so many different things art can do – be beautiful, rich in expression, devastating in telling truth, inspiring in showing a new idea, funny, poignant, story-telling, bamboozle us with enigmatic mystery, wrong-foot us with skulking banality, entertain us with eclectic references, let material speak for itself, give us something pure to zen out with…or just show us the traces of an artist’s actions.

We have to take each work as it comes on its own merits – and when it presents a thing transposed from real world to gallery with little or no mediation, that is the hardest to read, and to know how to respond to. What is more confusing, is that despite the complete difference of the conceptual shock work, we are still trying to respond to it with the same part of our receptive mind as any other work of art – hence the potential for disappointment, disbelief and derision. The shark isn’t neutral – it comes with its own connotations and physical aura, but it seems to be lacking any guidance from the creator, apart from the poetic yearning title “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” and the loadedness of its being placed into the sanctity of art gallery, which makes us want to go past just scientific scrutiny. Apart from the “it is what it is” hulking reality of what is before me, the after image coupled with the title do have a tendency to haunt the memory, without feeling a need to go back and re-encounter it.

The message seems simple, direct, and instantly “get-able” – Hirst’s pieces do that really well. Whether they will retain the power over time, and be seen as great artwork in decades/centuries to come is another matter. Although visceral contemporary art is incomparable to traditional artistic skills, ultimately we want to be moved by the work in some deep way. Technically competent portraits & landscapes are no guarantee of this experience, and something that at first sight might look unpromising might have surprising depths given half a chance. The greatest art may be that which keeps you coming back, and reveals new layers of meaning each time, working on several levels, allowing diverse interpretation. But someone else’s greatest art may be that which hits you over the head in the most powerful way, that packs a gut-wrenching punch, on one memorable level. Who am I to say? Obviously I want both, but they exist on different planes in my value judgement.

And so, I keep giving work like Hirst’s a chance. I think Hirst is a sincere artist, not merely an opportunist, who has apparently shaped his own success, with the help of the Saatchi machine. His golden talent for self-promotion doesn’t automatically mean he must be a con artist producing shallow claptrap, which is a very popular sentiment thrown at the man. There are many other artists ploughing similar furrows, without stellar bank accounts to match, and they keep it up for years when there must be surer established ways of making money. Ok, so these other artists could just be less successful artrepreneurs, would-be Damiens, but honestly I think they must do it for the love of it. Can you choose to be a cutting-edge artist as a career? Am I being totally naive? Hirst is one who got lucky early…or did he force fate’s hand with some canny media machinations? You can tell I’m never quite sure about that guy.

The 1990 work “1000 Years” is one of Damien Hirst’s most perfect statements. Live animals had featured in art before this, art povera Kounellis’s horses, Joseph Beuys’s performance art with a coyote. Beuys also staged a talk to a dead hare. Hirst shocks us by bringing in actual in-your-face life and death happening before your eyes in an art gallery. Damien Hirst - A 1000 YearsA bleak message that we know already, but shoved down our throats, that we are born, we mate, and we die – over and over again, and in an unflinching existential vision of the here and now, he is saying that is all there is. He is an atheist playing God. It is completely enclosed world, they can’t get out, we can’t intervene. The components are terrible – the smell of the rotting cow’s head, the congealed ribbon of blood, the constant motion of the flies; we imagine the noise of the flies buzzing and the electrocutor humming, though it is completely silenced behind the glass and against the gallery hubbub; the callousness of the locked-in cycle in its museum vitrine – a freak show of perpetual life, sex and death. The work is awful, but sort of elegant in its economic simplicity, from a distance even appearing to be a minimalist sculpture, but with something disquieting about it. As a piece of kinetic, ever-changing process art, it has clever intellectual dimensions. It is truly mesmerising, and it makes me feel guilty for wanting to allow it to exist, but I’m not sure I ever want to see the horrible thing again. [Pic courtesy of Saatchi Gallery]

However familiar some of the works are from pictures and reviews, there’s nothing like experiencing them for real. There’s a deep vein of dark humour running through all the cigarette butts and pristine surgery tools. It’s like a dance of death, cavorting with the most profound subjects, but trying to make light of them by having a bit of a laugh. So the work is balanced on a knife edge – they can be philosophy and poetry, or a cabaret of curiosities for our (uneasy) titillation. It’s really up to you which way to take it. Or you can relax, forget about the art questions, and join the children in wide-eyed wonder at butterflies and pickled sheep. A beach ball perpetually turning in a stream of air brings the old children’s gallery at the Science Museum to mind. The immaculate beauty of hundreds of butterfly wings fashioned into windows is just awesome, as is the gaping jawed shark, though not as stupendous as the iconic original. A room with a black sheep in a tank has what looks like a huge black sun behind it. “What’s that made of, is it wool?” I innocently ask – of course it turns out to be dead flies, perhaps swept up from 1000 Years.  The grimness of the flies brings to mind a schoolboy’s cruel backyard experiments with insects “just to see what happens”. The later gold and diamonds riffing on the same old themes, reflecting on the bionic auction values Hirst could conjure up make up an irritating later work called Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. This sort of thing starts to feel like the artist disappearing up his own formaldehyded fundament. I did not queue to see the diamond skull. That was the first piece he conceived that made me want to despise him.

The art world would be that much more dull without the spikes in the graph of artists like Hirst. At his best he has been provocative, intelligent and unforgettable. At his worst he has been disappointing, repetitive and cynical. Walking around the galleries, I couldn’t help pick up some sort of resonance from his combined oeuvre, though this got weaker in the detail of most individual works. I am still intrigued, but I can live without any of that stuff. It could be this retrospective is the last we’ll hear of him in any big way for a while – who knows. (Art critic Edward Lucie-Smith maintains that his influence with young artists now is non-existent.) Meanwhile, these musings have seen me making temporary peace with contemporary art, though a gloriously uneasy peace.

Nb. I’ve read quite a few reviews of D.H. and the Tate exhibition, and I think Philippa Warr’s via Huffington Post is the one I can agree with the most.

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4 Responses to Contemporary contention

  1. Glennie Bee says:

    “The greatest art may be that which keeps you coming back, and reveals new layers of meaning each time, working on several levels, allowing diverse interpretation.”
    I think that’s exactly what great art is – it’s the essence of great music and literature, and holds just as well for visual art.
    As you say, Hirst seems to give it all up in one go: ‘visceral’, ‘shocking’ etc. etc, but so was The Evil Dead film: once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. Repeat viewings would, I strongly suspect, only serve to underline the meretricious banality.
    Nice post.

  2. ian russell says:

    A good essay, John. I don’t have much to say about Hirst, he’s not something I go for, I don’t have any initial curiosity for it. I like paintings!

  3. johnnynorms says:

    Thanks Glennie. The shock/novelty element is obviously hard to repeat, although 1000 years to me remains shocking, or perhaps like an open wound that won’t heal up. It helps if there’s something else underneath the surface when the novelty shock’s worn off. However, I have a place in my life for the raw, noisy, rant of punk, something else that is a blast without much subtle follow up. It’s not an equal parallel, because the punk I love is more obviously honest and from the heart (even then there can be a certain amount of jumping on the bandwagon), but it’s something I appreciate whilst not going back for a re-listen that often. Art is more loaded in that we expect more from it, but I don’t mind if not all art delivers equally.

    Maybe what really gets my hackles up is the thought that Hirst is working the system just as much as he’s infiltrating the system and making a point about it. He’s having his cake and eating it – sort of corporate punk. I wonder how good it’s all been for his muse?

    Ta Ian, I gravitate most towards paintings (and sculpture) as well to be honest, but I like to scratch my head and have a ponder over anything that’s put before me in the name of Art – it’s a weakness of mine. Even if I end up tying myself in knots of sophistry over it sometimes! Picasso essay is almost ready…

  4. Glennie Bee says:

    Punk! Bring it on!
    Thanks for following my blog, Johnny; I’m only too happy to follow back someone who writes as well as you do. And you used one of my favourite words, ‘sophistry’. 🙂

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