Damien Hirst Jumps The Shark:
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)
Photograph [Fair Use] Wikiart
The arts are undergoing a crisis of relevance. People have been so alienated by the weird dysfunctions of the establishment art world for so long, there is little awareness of what is being advanced as the visual representations of our culture.
This stuff matters more than people know. Art shows us who we are, and it shows us how to be. Right now the arts are dominated by destructive nihilists. Look at what they do, to understand what the elites are trying to program as our way to live.
There is a longstanding artistic tradition of the momento mori: “remember you must die.”
The reality of our own mortality, and coming to terms with it, is a vital function of traditional art. Making something exquisite out of the way of all flesh is a transcendental act. It has been expressed in many ways. Throughout art history, skulls make appearances in paintings, on jewelry, on clocks and watches. Dutch masters painted beautifully naturalistic oil still lifes referred to as vanitas, which included images of bones, snuffed lamps, and hourglasses. They not only celebrated the refined talents of the painters, they implied pending decay.
Pieter Claesz “Vanitas Still Life” (1630) Photograph [Public Domain] Wikiart
The tradition continued over the centuries. In a more recent example, Modernist American painter Georgia O’Keeffe utilized cow skulls and flowers to similar effect. It’s the kind of universal communication that makes art so powerful.
Georgia O’Keeffe “Summer Days” (1936) Photograph [Fair Use] Wikiart
As Christians, we understand our true life is not limited to this earth, but is life eternal granted by the grace of the Son of God. Still, awareness of the briefness of our time here on earth is a powerful motivator. “I am writing this book because we’re all going to die,” mused Beat author Jack Kerouac. He was determined to deliver his story as a supplication to the Lord. Kerouac wanted to make something holy out of all his striving, opening himself to God before the darkness came.
Contemporary art has a different message for us: death as something awkward, gross, and shameful. This is typified by the richest living artist in the world: Damien Hirst.
Photograph by Quintin Lake Wikiart
Hirst has been well rewarded for making death seem supreme. It’s said this hack is worth $1 billion. What put British artist Hirst on the fast track in the first place could be seen as a momento mori of a kind, but with some important caveats.
Hirst was trying to make that connection in his title. Called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the 1991 piece was a fourteen foot long taxidermied tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. Since its creation it has changed hands several times, for a price suggested to be as high as $12 million.
Now, Hirst did not catch the shark. He did not stuff the shark. He did not build the tank, or suspend the beast in it. He is a “Conceptual artist.” The idea of Conceptual art is all the artist needs is to have the idea. Others execute it, often by just putting some already existing item like a shark into a new context of a gallery or museum. The artist then acts as a well-networked and “controversial” spokesmodel for their commercialized brand. This business model was most visibly pioneered by Pop artist Andy Warhol, who made some vanitas himself.
Andy Warhol “Skull” (1976) Photograph [Fair Use] WikiartWhile Warhol usually sold product placements and celebrity portraits, HIrst’s brand is carcasses. It’s claimed nearly 1 million animals have been processed through his industrial scale artistic abattoir, ranging from butterflies to zebras. He’s advanced from having them merely displayed; they are sliced, diced, contorted and flayed, as per his “vision.” As Hirst has callously stated, he wants to “kill things in order to look at them,” and “Cut us in half, we’re all the f***ing same.”
Damien Hirst “Piggy” Photograph [Fair Use] WikiartI don’t claim any special virtue for myself. I’m a happy meat eater, and I understand what that means. But what Hirst promotes is far from the traditional momento mori of art. There’s no acknowledgement of the urgency of human experience, the profound significance of life in the face of its certain end. The hands off approach from its originator removes the spiritual resonance of creation in spite of destruction. Hirst implies we are just meat to be manipulated and exploited. It’s an ugly and empty message. Hirst doesn’t even provide quality in the work he has done in his name. Despite the hype, I’ve seen descriptions of encounters with the shark which say what was once was a magnificent animal looks about as impactful as an overstuffed sofa, lost in the white void of the museum. The original shark rotted away in its tank, and had to be replaced. The contemporary art market is place of such cognitive dissonance there is a hearty debate on whether swapping the shark out meant the artwork was now worthless. My take? It was worthless in the first place. We can combat the presumptions of this cult of death. Art can be used to demonstrate how the love of God transcends our material limitations.