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.

The Art Newspaper reveals most popular exhibitions and museums of 2011

art, Louvre
The folks over at the Art Newspaper have just released some interesting stats about the art world of 2011. Collecting a huge amount of data from hundreds of museums and galleries, they’ve discovered some important trends.

First off, the big shows are getting bigger. The top ten most popular art shows back in 1996, the first year they gathered figures, averaged 3,000 visitors a day. Last year’s top ten shows averaged almost 7,000 visitors a day.

For total attendance in 2011, the Louvre in Paris was way ahead with 8,880,000 visitors. Number two was the Met in New York City with slightly over 6,000,000 visitors. Paris and London dominated the top ten. Three Parisian museums made the top ten: the Louvre (#1), Centre Pompidou (#8), and Musée D’Orsay (#10), with a combined total of 15.2 million visitors. London boasts the British Museum (#3), National Gallery (#4), and Tate Modern (#5), with a combined total of 16 million.

For top exhibitions, last year had several blockbusters, with “The Magical World of Escher” coming out on top with 573,691 visitors. It was free at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. The most popular paid exhibition was “Kukai’s World: The Art of Esoteric Buddhism” at the Tokyo National Museum with 550,399 tickets sold.

There’s a lot more data in the report giving lots of insight into the booming world of major art exhibitions. It should be interesting to see what trends this year’s figures show.

Photo of the Louvre courtesy Ivo Jansch.

Top ten things to do in Brussels, Belgium

BrusselsA couple of weeks ago I was chatting with some fellow travel writers and the conversation turned to Brussels. The general consensus seemed to be that Belgium’s capital isn’t worth visiting.

I disagree. While it can’t compete with London or Paris, it has its own charm and can easily fill up three or four days of a European tour. The mixture of Flemish and Walloon culture makes for a distinct city with an interesting history. A large immigrant population is livening things up too, with Ethiopian cafes, Asian restaurants, and a string of Congolese shops in the Matonge area.

Here are ten reasons not to skip Brussels.

Beer!
Belgian beer is justly famous for its variety and flavor. From the rich Trappist and Abbey beers to the more secular but equally tasty Lambics and Saisons, Belgium is a beer snob’s paradise. There are plenty of fine bars in Brussels serving up this lovely brew. A Gadling favorite is the centrally located Delerium Cafe, which sells more than 2000 varieties from around the world, and of course a huge selection of Belgian labels.

Chocolate!
Like Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate needs no introduction. Hey, it’s so good you can even snort it. Chocolate shops abound in Brussels and most cafes will serve you a piece along with your coffee.

Peeing statues!
Ah yes, the famous Manneken Pis. Has anyone gone to Brussels and not seen this? There are several stories about how this little guy came into being. The one I heard was that a sculptor’s son went missing back in the seventeenth century. A frantic search ensued and the sculptor swore he’d make a statue showing his son exactly as he found him. Take a look at this photo courtesy Jim Linwood to see what the kid was doing when he finally turned up. In the spirit of affirmative action, a female counterpart was erected in 1987 in Impasse de la Fidélité/Getrouwheidsgang (Fidelity Alley) showing a little girl squatting and doing her business. She’s called Jeanneke Pis.

Art Nouveau!
Brussels is justly famous for its many Art Nouveau buildings dating to the early part of the last century. The best way to savor the scene is to go to one of Brussels’ many Art Nouveau cafes where you can enjoy a coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate while admiring the architecture. One of the greatest of Art Nouveau architects was Victor Horta whose house museum is a classic of the style.

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Classic Films!
Belgium was an early innovator of film back during cinema’s infancy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The best place to learn about this is the Musée du Cinéma/Filmmuseum, where you can see artifacts from the birth of motion pictures. The museum’s two cinemas show arthouse classics and silent films with live piano accompaniment.

Tanks and Swords!
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History is one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited, and I’ve probably visited too many. The land that now comprises Belgium has been fought over for centuries and this museum’s collection reflects that bloody past. It has an excellent tank collection from both world wars as well as an extensive armory of medieval weapons to slice, dice, chop, hack, and crush your enemies. Why is this cool? It just is.

Fine Art!
Museums are the best way to stay dry when the Belgian weather gets wet, which it does frequently. Brussels has several art galleries and museums. The most prominent are the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Together they boast some twenty thousand paintings, sculptures and drawings. They include the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Wiertz Museum, the Meunier Museum, and the Museé Magritte Museum.

The Historic Center!
Much of medieval Brussels was leveled to make way for new construction in the nineteenth century. Luckily, a classic core survives around La Grand Place/Grote Markt, where centuries-old mansions and churches still survive. This is the most photogenic part of Brussels and while it can get overrun with tourists, it’s still worth a look. A little further out, visit the Basilique du Sacré Coeur/Basiliek van het Heilig Hart, an Art Deco basilica that’s the fifth biggest church in the world, and La Cambre Abbey, a 12th century abbey.

Comics!
Besides film, beer, and chocolate, the Belgians have always been big into comics. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center you can learn all about this with a variety of comics on display and a big gift shop if you want to bring some home. Belgium’s most famous comic artist was Hergé, creator of Tintin, who of course has his own museum.

Day trips!
Belgium is a small country with a good rail system. This makes it a good base for day trips. The lovely countryside is dotted with several castles and rustic villages. Regular trains go to several historic cities such as Antwerp (one hour), Ghent (30 minutes), Bruges (one hour), and Liege (one hour). For more information on day trips, click here.

So head on over to Brussels. You won’t be sorry!

Scottish National Portrait Gallery to reopen after major renovation

Scottish National Portrait GalleryAfter more than two years and £17.6 million ($27.4 million), the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh will reopen on December 1.

The remodel opens up more of the Victorian building to public view, adds more than 60% to the public space, and introduces several themed galleries, including Blazing with Crimson–a collection of full-length portraits of men in kilts.

The gallery’s massive collection of portraits includes those of great statesmen, royalty, scientists, engineers, soldiers, and athletes. Special galleries look at the new face of Scotland, with one exhibit highlighting Scotland’s large Pakistani community.

Another bonus to the revamped gallery is that entrance is now free.

The gallery opened in 1889 as the first purpose-built portrait gallery. While it has always featured paintings of Scotland’s great names, it now also includes a large space devoted to photography.

This is the second major museum reopening in Edinburgh this year. The National Museum of Scotland reopened this summer after a £47.4 million ($74 million) renovation.

Photo of Robert Burns portrait courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Five ways to keep your kids from suffering museum fatigue

museum fatigue“I want to go to the museum.”

I love it when my son says that. A lot of kids never do. It’s not surprising. Museum fatigue can set in pretty quickly for the little tykes unless you approach them right. Here are five tips for getting your children to actually want to go to museums. These tips may just keep you from strangling them as they whine in front of the Mona Lisa.

Start early
If you suddenly decide that at age twelve your son or daughter needs some culture, they aren’t going to react well. They have to be accustomed to it. We started early with our son, wheeling him around museums and art galleries in his stroller. It helps that we live in a major European capital with lots of culture. This became part of our Sunday routine: lunch at grandma’s, then off to see an exhibition.

Follow their lead
If your kids wants to see something in particular or linger in front of the crocodile god, let them. They’re engaged in the experience and you need to foster that. Following a kid around a museum can be a surreal experience. They don’t go in an orderly, logical way like most adults. They flit around like hummingbirds, making odd connections between objects. “Hey, look, this statue is missing its nose too!”

Find some activities
My son loves the Prehistoric Europe room at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum because there’s a little bow and arrow you can shoot at cardboard deer. Any time we go into the Ashmolean we have to go to that room first. He also likes looking at the coin of the Roman emperor who has the same name he does.
Some museums are more entertaining than others. The St. Petersburg Toy Museum in Russia, pictured here courtesy Wikimedia Commons, is a safe bet. Another good one is the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford, with cases packed with strange statues and shrunken heads, and drawers you can open up. The museum is dimly lit and they give you flashlights so you can wander around like explorers.

Don’t overdo it
Most adults begin to flag after a couple of hours staring at paintings and mummies, so you can’t expect Junior to keep on going. In fact, a study of museum fatigue suggests it starts setting in within the first hour! Get a snack at the museum cafe, find a nearby park so they can run around, or simply cut your visit short and come back later.

Don’t skip the gift shop
My wife objects to this tip. She says children shouldn’t expect to be rewarded just for behaving. She’s half right. While they shouldn’t expect an overt reward like a present, some sort of award is in order. A trip to the gift shop can be fun and release some pent-up energy. The lights are brighter, you can talk at normal volume, and there are lots of cool widgets to play with. Have them pick out a postcard for grandma or their friends. A little gift for them is OK every now and then too. Getting some ice cream after the museum is another good call. Mix up the rewards so that they don’t get the mentality “museum=ice cream or museum=new toy.”

What do you do to get your kid to enjoy museums? Share your parenting tips in the comments section!