To some people, Damien Hirst embodies all that is bad in contemporary art. And I quite agree. It is interesting to note how so many people have been enamored by a work more befitting a natural history museum, than rather, an actual art museum. Yet, even at a natural history museum I feel the public would find it too comical to believe. Just look at the title: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” It is a work that represents the sound of money. But sounds, the reader may ask? What sounds? Why no other sound than the dollars bills being slapped down onto the table and being locked away in some Swiss bank. The sounds of the incessant clicking of cameras, the sounds of people hustling with surely eyed wonderment, glancing to see this monstrous work, this artwork that is iconic and true to the taste of the public. Those are the sounds I mean, my dear reader. They are not healthy sounds. Neither is the title. I find it so hard to imagine why the title must actually inform the viewer of what the artist is attempting to relate to his viewers. The meaning is supposedly in the title, but I’m not convinced it instills anything meaningful at all. Indeed, “The Physical Impossibility” would seem to be the direct heir of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Obviously, Hirst engages the public’s imagination over sharks, and how dangerous the animals seemingly are. But when I look deeper, I realize that this “artwork” is as empty and crowd-pleasing as Spielberg’s film. The work is more aimed towards monetary success, than artistic success. It is just as unhelpful as a black hole. Why should one even call this a visual artwork at all?
I should bother the viewer with the tedious bits of a standard criticism of an artwork: the medium (ha!), the year(s) (1991 and 2006), a description (why bother?), and the background of the artist. I will only look at the background of the artist, and purely in an Inquisition-like fashion. Hopefully, I will inch closer to the motives of Hirst and why he chose to make loads of cash by choosing to be an “artist.” Thus, I will quote Hirst:
I have always been aware that you have to get people listening before you can change their minds. Any artist’s big fear is being ignored, so if you get debate, that’s great.
That’s just great. I can’t help but wonder, why doesn’t he just set up fireworks or heck, maybe put a sign next to the tank that gives the price of the work. Why not? Hirst is quite familiar to the formula of getting cash: Off the wall comments + publicity of comments = $$$. Warhol might as well be his dad. However, he also says something which should be on any artists mind, he simply wants to “change their (the public’s) mind.” That’s cool with me. But how did he do that? Does contemplating inevitable death really change my mind that I’m going to die? Hirst’s “profound” message is a seemingly superficial one, and it is incredibly obvious.
I used to believe I was going to live forever. And then you suddenly become aware that you’re not.
Well, that’s sad. Honestly, I hope when he accepts the Nobel Prize, he will do himself a service and not say he was hoping to live forever. Maybe he’ll become aware of the audience looking like the angry mouth of a tiger shark, and will suddenly realize his impossible confrontation in the mind of someone dead.
But I’m more interested in why people are frightened by Jaws and why Jaws was such a hit than saying Spielberg’s my main influence.
Actually, this is really interesting. I’ll give him credit, his work in some ways is influenced by film. But of course, he doesn’t want to be a total nonconformist and assume that he can – God forbid! – be influenced by another art form. Why doesn’t he just go out and say he was influenced by Spielberg? I guess that would make Hirst too common if he did. I would have had more respect for the man if he had admitted the influence, but sadly he did not. A missed opportunity.
The Stuckism International Gallery certainly thinks that Hirst stole the idea from someone else. They had an artist by the name of Eddie Saunders who did a shop display similar to Hirst’s two years before Hirst’s came out with his tiger shark. Now, I very much doubt that Hirst was influenced by Saunders, it was more likely a media stunt. (The Stuckists also suggested that a dead shark isn’t art). But it is clear where Hirst got his influence. No it was not John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” but as already mentioned, Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” It was a frightening film when it came out in 1975, and one the public gulped up and fully believed in. It also managed to make loads of cash. So much so, it practically popularized the term, “blockbuster.” I imagine Warhol was smiling down from the heavens, and filming the flow of cash into Hirst’s Swiss bank. When Hirst was told how anyone could have made his work, he quipped, “But you didn’t, did you?” No I didn’t, Damien. But Steven Spielberg did.
The tiger shark is the Can-can of art vulgarity. The vulgarity is real. It is clear that Hirst is not a student of art history. If he was, he might have made a few nods to pre-Duchamp artists, or even through his whole oeuvre, yet the fact is, he doesn’t. Put it this way, if he is a radical artist like some of his cronies and followers would have you believe, why are there so many references to past artists in the works of Picasso? Hirst cannot be considered “radical,” if he has not been influenced by respected artists of old, like Picasso was with Goya’s “The Third of May” when he did “Guernica.” The tiger shark, if anything, is influenced by “Jaws.” In the end, what makes this such a vulgar work, is that it presumes to scoff at the respected art that came before it.
It would seem that Hirst and other artists look down upon representational art as retrograde, and modernists are more forward thinking. They are, but only as far as a buck goes. Contemporary art is essentially a business. Corporate Art for the select few that want to impress their clients. Why wouldn’t an executive not want a Warhol or a Koons? Modernity gives legitimacy. It also helps that the titans of Corporate Art sell for millions. While the public is gawking at absurd prices for banal art, they are also allowed to enjoy an “open interpretation” of an artwork. How democratic of the busybodies. Yet, this “open interpretation” is dumbing down the audience. In “The Physical Impossibility,” Hirst lets them read the title, and basically tells them how to interpret the “artwork.” And of course, the tiger shark is expert manipulation. What better way to strike the fear of God into a tiger mom. I fear, the only way anyone could approach this work or many contemporary works is through cynicism, a regrettable trait when the artist cannot transmit some sort of transcendence to the viewer. The shark display is like a black hole. One looks in, but no light, and no enlightenment is reflected back. How damning of the “artist.”
What I realize now is that I have contemplated philosophical questions I have not really thought of before. (I’ll give Hirst a tinge of credit for this). When do the sinews of art break? At what point can we call a designated “artwork” a work of art at all? And if it isn’t an artwork, what is its importance? This isn’t the first time people have wondered these questions. I imagine when the Impressionists first stormed upon the scene they forged a huge philosophical divide between two forces: the old ways and modernism. The old ways, ie. representation and transcending aesthetics were pitted against modernism, the abstraction and the cynicism. Which do you like? And which do you think is more beneficial to society? Those were the common questions. Much ink was spilt and many dreams tarnished. As WWI came about, it seemed like the 2oth century had truly begun. The trenches were being dug in throughout the art sphere, and art is still feeling the effects from the divide and will forever feel them. The sinews of art broke when commercialism rose to prominence during the 1960’s. Art was like an advertising agency. Always showing what is cool and hip, but not showing any emotions. It was a mad prophecy. Prices of artworks skyrocketed and zoomed by like a Lichtenstein jet. Surely the pulse was too much? Surely art would suffer some type of heart attack and collapse? But that’s just it. That’s what modernism did. It arrested art and shot it down like a helpless parachutist. A new “art” was born. And the thing is, it is not art at all. The “visuals” show no guiding light, no melancholy for the past, no aesthetics that will shake humanity for the better. Our kingdom for a Campell Soup Can. The importance? Glorification of emptiness. Full frontal nihilism.
In short, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is a disgrace. I have learned the greatest lesson that H.L. Mencken could have ever possibly taught me: that one can never underestimate the taste and intelligence of the public, but furthermore and regrettably so in my case, the “artist” himself.