Damien Hirst, Garbage, and the Spirit of the Age

“Each day art further diminishes its self respect by bowing down before external reality.”- Baudelaire

More than a few tweets and blogs are circulating last week’s story of how artist Michale Landy will be trashing the works of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and 25 other artists as part of a six-week event at the South London Gallery.  The works will be publicly thrown into a large glass trash bin before they are carted off to the landfill forever (how long does it take for an idea to decompose?). Since I heard the story I’ve been wrestling with how to address this notion of presenting one’s trash to the public as an expression of “reality as art as trash as art.”

Damien Hirst’s involvement in all of this is not surprising, as he has become emblematic of the art world’s tendency to elevate the banality of everyday life to a high form of contemporary art. Hirst once installed an environmental piece consisting of ash trays, empty bottles, cig butts, and other refuse, at the Mayfair Gallery in London. After a VIP viewing, the janitor went through the gallery, cleaned everything up and threw Hirst’s art installation in the trash. Hmm, sounds familiar doesn’t it? Reportedly, Hirst was elated, since his work is about the relation between art and the everyday, and throwing it away was the natural consummation for the piece. Perhaps the incident prompted the idea for this most recent trash dump.

There’s a certain social conformity in all of this, where the artist seems to be aligning himself a bit too closely with the general public, coming alongside the janitor, if you will, and holding the dust pan as he sweeps up the cigarette butts. It’s a notion that could seem altruistic and empowering to the everyman, were it not for the way the postmodern artist dismiss any notion of value and hierarchy. If art were considered as God, this movement would be an insidious form of pantheism, where God/art is in the trees, the cigarette butt, and who knows where else. This is all good if the art serves some sort of purpose. This seems to serve none, other than to attract publicity and bolster someone’s bank account.

In the past the artist’s role was that of antagonist, as they set themselves against the crowd and popular culture, lifting up ideas and concepts that were at least new and progressive if not dangerous. The postmodern artist doesn’t dazzle or even lead the crowd, he merely affirms the crowd by mirroring it.

Donald Kuspit talks about the Ash Tray incident in his book The End Of Art, where he makes the comment that “(Hirst’s) commitment to banality, with its predatory curiosity and uncritical dependence on everydayness, is the kiss of aesthetic death and artistic death, for it makes art just another everyday phenomenon. Parody is the last frontier of novelty, and novelty has run it’s course. (such parody is usually more entertaining than critical, and bounces off other art rather than psychosocial reality.)”

The Event Raises Interesting Questions

Landy seems to be elevating the experience of failure. Is he invalidating the notion that aesthetics matter on any level whatsoever? Even if you say that art is about ideas more than craft, the fact that these painting are “failures” by the artists own standards indicates that they are just as likely to be failed ideas as well as failed executions. Is Landy’s idea a failure? How do you judge…and If it is, how do you throw that in a trash bin?

Perhaps Landy is giving a nod to the studio experience where we all edit and omit as we try to distill our ideas into the ones that really matter. But then, what does it even mean for something to “matter” anymore? If things don’t matter, then are we simply apathetic victims of a literal world without hope?

See, for me, there’s the rub…the artists present failed works as finished art. If the work is judged a “failure” via some personal or ideological standard, by what shifting and elusive standard can it suddenly be deemed a success? ( At least successful enough to be in a widely viewed public display and associated with a number of famous failures.)

Broader issues- the Spirit of the Age

If art is a reflection of trends and ideas within society as a whole, what does this art as garbage movement say about the world in which we live? If we continue to strip the world of meaning and elevate banality to a higher order of truth, we will transform the world into a vacuum where we spend our time, as T.S. Eliot would say, “dodging emptiness.”

In his allegory Pilgrims Regress, CS Lewis tells how the main character is held captive in a dungeon by a loathsome giant called the spirit of the age. Falling under the giants gaze would cause his victims to have a hideous xray vision, with the ability to see through skin and bone, with acute awareness of organs, saliva, flesh, bone, and even disease. They would see things “as they were”, and in a way that was graphic and repulsive.

This acute awareness of banal, literal physicality was accentuated by taunts from the jailer. Each time he would bring them food he would taunt them, reminding them that they were eating corpses of dead animals, and elaborate on their gruesome slaughter & butchering. If he brought eggs he would remind them that they were eating the menstruum of a verminous fowl. The situation finally comes to a head when the jailer taunts them about the milk they were drinking, saying that, as an excretion from a cow, it was no different from any other bovine excretion, such as sweat or dung. With that, John, the main character, laughs and says:

“Oh thank heaven, now at last I know that you’re talking nonsense.”

“What do you mean?” asks the jailer, wheeling around to face him.

“You are trying to pretend that two unlike things are alike. To make us think that milk is the same sort of thing as sweat or dung.”

“And what is the difference, save for custom?”

“Are you a liar, or only a fool that you do not see the difference between what nature casts out as refuse and that which she keeps for food? …Milk feeds calves, and dung does not.”

Real art nourishes, while parody and novelty are left to decompose. I’ve tried to stay brief with this and still unpack a lot of ideas…let me know what you think.

  1. December 27th, 2011
    Trackback from : Bringing Barr | PDXarts

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