What Is Art? I Don’t Know And Neither Does Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst
One of the perks of being a travel writer is you get to go to press viewings for upcoming exhibitions. While you don’t beat the crowds (hordes of journalists and hangers-on attend these things) you do get to see some great art for free. And if a show is disappointing, at least you didn’t have to pay for it.

I just went to the press viewing at the Tate Modern in London for “Damien Hirst,” a retrospective for one of Britain’s most famous contemporary artists. Hirst became hugely famous and wealthy in the 1990s as a leading figure in the Britart movement. His displays of preserved animals, dead flies, rows of pills and other studies of life and death polarized the artistic community. Critics either loved or hated his work and it became the center of that perennial and unanswerable question: “What is art?”

I have no idea what art is. I’ve heard lots of definitions, usually pontificated at me by some self-styled expert, and none of them have proved terribly convincing. For me, art is a visceral feeling, a reaction that I can’t entirely explain. To paraphrase the old line about pornography: I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it.

Sometimes.

Take one of Hirst’s most famous pieces, pictured above. This preserved shark is titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Is this art? To me it isn’t, since it didn’t give me any sort of gut reaction or make me see the world in a different way. If this is art, then every natural history museum is filled with art. And perhaps they are.

Damien Hirst
This one is called “Mother and Child Divided” and features a cow and calf cut in half. You can walk between the cases and see their insides. This was mildly interesting from a biological point of view, yet once again it felt more like natural history than art, until I saw how the journalists reacted to it. One photographer had brought his daughter along. The girl, about six years old, walked between the cases looking at the calf’s insides. She had that inscrutable expression children sometimes get when they react to something new.

I was wondering what was going on inside her head when a female photographer went up to her father and asked if she could take photos of the girl. The dad said yes and the photographer pulled out her camera. The girl immediately became stiff and put on her “smiling for a family photo” look.

“No, don’t look at me, look at the calf like you don’t know what to think of it,” the woman instructed. “Good! Now give me a cheeky grin.”

Snap snap snap, and the media had created their own reality.

The girl’s father was more ethical. He took a photo of me walking through the cow. I only realized what he was doing when the shutter clicked, so whatever expression I had on my face was the real one.

Is “Mother and Child Divided” art? Yeah, probably. While the piece itself didn’t teach me anything, the audience reaction sure did.

Damien Hirst
I bet that kid liked this next one. It’s called “Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kid’s stuff, lacking integrity, rotating, nothing but visual candy, celebrating, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa).”

This is one of Hirst’s Spin Paintings, made by splashing paint on a rotating canvas. It’s something I did in grade school and something Hirst has done a lot. Well, actually his assistants do most of them. Art? Maybe, but not Hirst’s art. In fact many of Hirst’s paintings, including most of his famous Spot Paintings, consisting of rows of colored dots, are done by his assistants and are only “Hirst paintings” because they come from his studio.

Damien HirstThis one I found quite beautiful. It’s called “For the Love of God” and is a platinum cast of an eighteenth century human skull covered by 8,601 diamonds. The teeth are from the original skull. It’s on display for free in a darkened exhibit space in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Room. The spotlights make it glitter in every color of the rainbow. So is this death bling really art? Hell, yeah! Turning mortality into something beautiful, gaudy, and a wee bit obscene brings up all sorts of issues, and if you don’t want to think about them you can at least enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake.

A popular piece with the crowd was “A Thousand Years,” another study of life and death. A glass vitrine holds a white box in which maggots hatch, develop into flies and feed on a cow’s head and a pool of blood. Right above the head is an Insect-o-cutor that attracts some of the flies, who get zapped and fall into a writhing pile of their dead and dying brethren. Others survive to make more maggots. The whole cycle of life and death is contained in one view.

It reminded me of the day my son was born. When my wife went into labor at the hospital the nurses wheeled her away on a gurney, leaving me to pace in the hallway until they prepped the birthing room and summoned me to “assist” with the birth. Moments after they disappeared down the hallway, another group of nurses came into view wheeling another gurney. On it lay a decrepit old man obviously in the last hours of his life.

Whoa. Ummm. . .whoa.

If Hirst’s “A Thousand Years” is art, then so was that scene in the hallway. This is the impression I got again and again from this exhibition. Hirst isn’t teaching anything you can’t learn simply by walking through life with your eyes open, and anyone who has to pay £14 ($22) to learn these lessons in an art museum probably won’t come away any wiser, so what good is this stuff?

You still might want to check this out. The retrospective is huge with dozens of works that I didn’t cover here. Some are beautiful (a stained glass window made of butterfly wings), some fall flat (a row of brightly painted cooking pans) and most leave you wondering just what the hell art is and if anybody really knows. I’m pretty sure Damien Hirst is as much in the dark about that question as I am.

“Damien Hirst” runs from April 4 to September 9, 2012.

All images © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, except “Mother and Child Divided” 2007, Photographed by Tate.