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.

‘Egyptomania’ grips Houston

EgyptomaniaThe Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, has just opened a new exhibition exploring the West’s fascination with ancient Egypt.

Egyptomania” collects forty objects from the Egyptian revivals of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This was the time when the West became widely aware of the great civilization of Egypt and started excavating there. Cutting open mummies became popular entertainment, the rich collected Egyptian artifacts, and it seemed like everyone wanted to own something in the Egyptian style — like this Art Deco perfume bottle shown here in a photo courtesy MFAH. It was designed by Baccarat c. 1930. Other items on display are Egyptian-style furniture, garden sphinxes (much cooler than garden gnomes) and even Egyptian asparagus tongs.

Visitors to the museum can get a double dose of ancient Egypt right now because the traveling exhibition “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs” is on display through April 15. This exhibition features more than a hundred artifacts, most of which have never been shown in the U.S. prior to this tour.

If this isn’t enough to stave off your Egyptomaniacal cravings, I suggest a trip to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium in San Jose, California. This place is a strange hybrid of serious museum and cultish quackery founded by a modern spiritual group inspired by ancient Egypt.

“Egyptomania” runs from March 18 through July 29.

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.

Paris: where Picasso got his inspiration

PicassoSometimes stereotypes live up to expectations. Paris has long been known as a city of artists, where aspiring painters/poets/writers go to light the spark of creativity that will make them famous. Of course most of them fail, but some succeed, and that feeds the legend. Pablo Picasso was one of the success stories.

Picasso went to Paris in 1900, when he he was 19, unknown, and striving to find his own style. Paris was full of avant-garde artists and the galleries were displayed the work of artists such as Modigliani, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Picasso got to meet many of these big names. This photo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, shows from left to right Modigliani, Picasso, and André Salmon in front the Café de la Rotonde. Being in such creative company helped the artist grow.

A new exhibition at the Pablo Picasso Museum in Barcelona examines these formative years in the life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists. Feasting on Paris: Picasso 1900-1907 features sixty works by Picasso as well as twenty works from the artists whom he most admired. The juxtaposition of his and others’ art shows the sources of his inspiration, and how he turned that inspiration into a distinctive style of his own.

Feasting on Paris: Picasso 1900-1907 runs from July 1 to October 16.