In London, the first retrospective of the artist Damien Hirst is on display at London’s Tate Modern Gallery. He specialises in decorated skulls and dead animals, some cut in half, floating in tanks of preservative, and has made an enormous amount of money.
Art critic Richard Dorment has written it up in the UK Daily Telegraph in the following rather enthusiastic terms. He says: “In Tate Modern’s full-scale retrospective he comes across as a serious — if wildly uneven — artist.
“We emerge from this strange, flawed, but hugely ambitious show with a sense of Hirst as a complex and troubled personality. As an artist his work is indeed difficult to take — not because it is dumb, but because no one in his right mind wants to think about the painful subjects it deals with….
“Hirst starts from a premise: we are so inured to even the most graphic images of death that we no longer experience it as real. By preserving the carcasses of animals in formaldehyde and by then exhibiting them in glass vitrines in an art gallery, he found a remarkably effective way to bring us face to face with death’s emptiness, its finality, its silence. Not all of the animal and fish pieces work, but when they do they are mesmerising.
“Take a few minutes to look closely at the goggle-eyed fish arranged in neat rows facing the same direction in ‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding’. To me it looks as though death caught each one by surprise. They look startled to find themselves in a state of eternal non-existence, having reached the final destination that still awaits you and me.
“Unlike in Goya’s still lifes with fish and game, in Hirst’s vitrines the extinction of life elicits neither outrage nor pity. What there is, I think, is something akin to compassion. For me, by far the most touching of the animal pieces is ‘Away from the Flock’, a lamb captured by death in mid-frolic. With such an emotive image Hirst could easily have thrown us a crumb of comfort. Instead he makes it plain that death is not a state of eternal rest or endless sleep — it is eternal suspension in nothingness.
“Hirst explores the theme of death from another angle in the assemblages in which he breeds flies and butterflies, allows them to gorge on blood, sugar and flowers, and then steps back to watch them die — either by flapping aimlessly around for their short life span or by flying into an insect-o-cutor. In these cruel, nihilistic pieces, he imagines a God who gives life gratuitously, only to take it mindlessly away” (UK Daily Telegraph, April 2, 2012).
To say this is not art, or that it is bad art, is to miss the point.
Art, whether a Renaissance masterpiece by Michaelangelo or a watercolour of the beach by my aunt Bessie, sets out to in some way to celebrate beauty. This sets out to celebrate the ultimate ugliness and succeeds.
Sculpture by Damien Hirst (2007):
a platinum cast of a human skull
encrusted with 8,601 diamonds.
Real art, in some way, celebrates the human spirit, the beauty and interest of the natural world or, if one is religiously inclined, the glory of God. It might, at its most heroic, be appropriately accompanied by a cry of excelsior (meaning “ever higher” or “pursuing excellence”). Mr Hirst’s work, on the other hand, slashes at these things with an expletive for a battle-cry.
An aesthetic critique of Mr Hirst’s work is a waste of time. What we who care about the achievements of Western civilisation have got to understand is that it is not bad work in the sense of failing to do what it sets out to do, although it is bad work in the sense of being profoundly wicked. What can be said about it is that it is enemy work.
Too many are shy about calling enemy work out for what it is, and those of us who are not shy in doing so often pick the wrong target. English morals crusader Mary Whitehouse was brave in her attempts to clean up British entertainment, and during her lifetime she had some successes. But far too often she attacked things such as the Benny Hill Show or Carry On films, which were no more than harmless coarse humour, and her efforts often back-fired by bringing those who shared her values into ridicule by association.
She made herself a joke because she was fighting a battle against some very clever and sophisticated people, backed by big money, which she was not mentally equipped to fight well — but one which no one else was prepared to fight at all.
Personally, I don’t mind Benny Hill or a Carry On film. But the “art” of Damien Hirst, like that of Tracey Emin, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, is not a matter of coy giggles about bums and boobs.
It is a direct attack on the Western spirit — on the human spirit as a whole, in fact — and on civilisation, science and thought as well as on beauty. Where the works of great, and even not-so-great, artists fill and raise our spirits, Hirst’s work empties and depresses them. Its message is celebration and magnification of that great Void, the thought of which more normally comes upon one only in clinical depression.
I am not at all certain that it is unconnected, whether as a cause or as an effect, of the widespread political corruption which appears to have overtaken all British — and not only British — political parties recently.
It is not something to chuckle over and be dismissed with claims that one’s own six-year-old child could do better, but it is a nakedly political expression of nihilism which represents a long-term threat to our values and civilisation.
If the single-minded enemies of the West in their Afghan caves, or even its somewhat less malevolent rivals in Beijing or Moscow, should somehow find a copy of the Telegraph and read Richard Dorment’s passage, it would be understandable if they concluded that a society which lauds and celebrates work such as Hirst’s will neither survive nor deserve to. The last time such “art” was highly popular and fashionable was in Berlin in the early 1930s.
The Greek philosopher Plato, writing in the 4th century BC, was wrong in his utopian prescriptions and petty authoritarianism, and in his demands for a “guardian” class to oversee and guide society.
But I am not sure that he was wrong in warning that art has a societal effect for good or ill, and that bad art — in the sense that Hirst’s is bad — is a corrupting influence on society, perhaps all the more dangerous because its danger is not immediately obvious.
A civilisation which lauds and showers wealth upon its own destroyers can only be described as profoundly — we must hope not terminally — decadent.
This type of art is at war with any positive human achievement or value. And, in a war, we do censor, or at least recognise for what it is, enemy propaganda.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer.