Monday, December 1, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 6)

Speaking of death, here is a work of art from the 1990s that has grown significantly in acclaim.  A quasi-vanitas piece of thematic profundity and immediate shock value, Damien Hirst's artwork pictured here is emblematic of the new age of art entering into the current millennium, a kind of hyper-expressionist kaleidoscope of mediums and materials.  Anything can be used as art, in the aftermath of Duchamp's Fountain and, the slightly more validating example, Warhol's Campbell's Tomato Soup Can.  Here the artist has appropriated a dead tiger shark and encased it in an enormous display case of formaldehyde.  Hirst titled the work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
This is not the first time that art has been made from something once-living.  Spanish painters going back as far as the 1500s painted with cochineal, which is a red pigment derived from the insect of the same name.  Oil paints were scarce, and the cochineal extract provided a brilliant pigment to add to an artist's palette.  Italian and Dutch painters made use of this organic paint in the 1600s as well.  This painting by Jan Vermeer shows carmine red, a pigment made from cochineal.  We perhaps don't know it when we see it, but we're looking at paint made from dead bugs.
And yet there is something to Damien Hirst's shark artwork that might sit uneasy with us.  Is there anything unethical about placing a dead animal in a glass container and then putting that dead animal on display to the general public as a work of art?  This is a real, rotting shark, not an artist's creation (in fact—rotting so rapidly that a new specimen was brought in for a replacement in 2006).  Is this art?  There undoubtedly is something to be found in such a piece which makes us feel uncomfortable (and not just that it's playing on my fear of sharks).  It was initially met with staunch criticism but has since become, in the eyes of critics, artists, and the general public, one of the masterworks of contemporary art.

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