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.

Video game exhibition coming to the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Major video game exhibition coming to the Smithsonian American Art Museum Gamers: put “World of Warcraft” on pause, lay down your controllers, and take note. Beginning on March 16, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, will open the first major exhibition of video games. The Art of Video Games will show how video games as an artistic medium have evolved over the past 40 years and will feature 80 games, all of which were chosen in a public vote in 2011.

The 80 games on display will be organized according to their game systems, of which there are 20 types, from Atari to to XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation 3. Prepare to be sent into a fit of nostalgia while viewing early favorites, like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong (alas, no Frogger). Or, just browse in amazement at how far video graphics have evolved with each iteration of Super Mario. The exhibit features four Super Mario versions: Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

The best part about the The Art of Video Games is that visitors will have a chance to play five of the games. Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower will all be featured in the museum arcade, giving anyone the chance to try out these vintage games or rack up a new high score.

The Art of Video Games kicks off with three days of GameFest, a weekend in which visitors can meet video game pioneers, artists, and designers. The exhibition runs from March 16-September 30, 2012, before moving on to the Boca Raton Museum of Art in October.

Image Flickr/zooboing

Phoenix Art Museum opens exhibit on world religion

Phoenix, Phoenix Art MuseumThe Phoenix Art Museum is one of the city’s best art spaces. With more than 18,000 objects in its permanent collection, it brings everything from Picasso to medieval Japanese silk to central Arizona. Their Asian collection is especially good.

Now the museum has started the new year with a major new exhibition. Sacred Word and Image: Five World Religions covers the written word and painted image as expressed in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. By showing the art and writings of these different religions side by side, visitors can see how people each faith use them to express their beliefs.

The exhibit includes a wide variety of objects, including Christian icons, Muslim prayer mats, religious texts, sculptures, and much more. One interesting item is a 7th century Japanese printed prayer, one of the oldest printed texts in the world. When Japan converted to Buddhism in the 7th century, the emperor had one million small wooden pagodas built. Each included a printed prayer inside.

Sacred Word and Image: Five World Religions runs until March 25, 2012.

Photo courtesy Chanel Wheeler.

New York State Museum celebrates 175th anniversary

New York State Museum, mastadon
The New York State Museum is getting old enough to be a museum piece itself. At 175 years it’s the oldest state museum in the country (and the largest), yet it’s constantly renewing its exhibitions and is anything but old and stuffy.

To celebrate, the museum is having a special exhibit called From the Collections, which shows the museum’s origins from an 1836 survey of the state’s geology, plants, and animals. Some of these original collections are on display, including minerals, the baleen of a whale, and information about some of the early researchers who got the museum going. One popular item is the Weebermobile, a one-cylinder car built in 1903 by Christian Weeber Jr. He began building cars in Albany as early as the 1890s.

Then there are the regular displays, such as the Native American art, a collection of Shaker artifacts, photos of Harlem in the 1920s, and a mastodon, shown here this photo courtesy Bob Keefer.

From the Collections runs until 1 April 2012.