Modern Art: a novice’s perspective
by David Siesage
First, a confession: I am a complete art novice; I lost all interest in the subject in year nine after three tedious years of drawing fruit, and, although I always wanted to be able to appreciate art, my knowledge of it until recently has been limited to thinking of a work of art as ‘filling a gap that would otherwise have nought in it,’ in the words of contemporary philosopher Karl Pilkington. My ignorance was particularly glaring when it came to modern art. I used to think this was frivolous and pretentious – it infuriated me that Tracy Emin’s unmade bed received such widespread critical acclaim. Anything I could do should not be deemed worthy of a Turner Prize nomination, I thought. Consequently, I went into the Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst exhibition with low expectations.
I am not going to pretend to now know all about conceptualism, minimalism, or the Young British Artists, but this exhibition changed my views on modern art in a more dramatic way than I’d ever expected. Hirst’s work is an assault on the senses; it is intrusive and altogether unavoidable, but this is what makes it so fantastic. Visiting this work at the Tate is truly an experience. Five minutes in, the person who I went with – my mum – said, ‘This is the weirdest place I’ve ever been in my life,’ and I don’t think I can dispute this.
The exhibition consists of a room full of rotting fruit and live butterflies (In and Out of Love); huge animals sliced in half and preserved in formaldehyde (Mother and Child Divided); an oversized ashtray full of cigarette butts which you can smell from the next room (Crematorium), and, most strangely, a glass vitrine containing a rotting cow’s head and larvae nest which produces a constant supply of flies to feast on the rotting flesh, and then be killed on the insect-o-cutor attached to the roof… This last piece, entitled A Thousand Years, reportedly made some viewers physically sick when it was first exhibited, and I could see why – Hirst himself has even described it as ‘a nasty piece’. And this is just a small sample of what you can expect.
Admittedly, modern art is difficult to enjoy easily as it often needs explicit explanations to understand it completely, but with some of Hirst’s art there is no real need to understand the message, as there often isn’t one. Several of his works are simply visual abnormalities which have no rhyme or reason; indeed, he claims that at art school he did not like justifying what he was doing by imposing an underlying message on his work which was not there. However, despite this, there is a consistent thread running through many of the exhibited pieces.
Dualities of death and life, beauty and decay, and science and religion, permeate his work. These have been themes since he was at art school when he had a placement at a mortuary. Hirst commented in 2005, ‘There [are] four important things in life: religion, love, art and science. At their best, they’re all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness,’ and this seems to have been a professional dictum from the early years. Indeed, one of the first works in the exhibition, With Dead Head, is a picture of a smiling young Hirst next to a severed head – clearly part of his preoccupation with death, but his smiling face brings an odd contrast to this piece.
These dualities are persistently reinforced as you carry on through the exhibition. Hirst frequently takes things that are naturally beautiful and places them alongside decay, or takes traditional religious images and distorts them with science. Although it is not in the exhibition, his infamous piece, For the Love of God is the perfect example of the former: a skull, an image associated directly with death and decay, is beautified with around £15m-worth of diamonds. The latter tendency is best portrayed by The Anatomy of an Angel in which a traditional sculpture of an angel is scientifically distorted and made to look like an anatomical model, similar to those seen in many of his other medicine-influenced pieces.
This is like no art I have ever seen before – you certainly wouldn’t have any of these pieces in your house – but this makes the exhibition all the more intriguing. Mr Pilkington has suggested that, ‘before [Damien Hirst] dies I bet he goes “What a laugh that was – I had everyone on,”’ but Hirst is no con artist. He is truly talented, and although he does not use traditional techniques to create art, it does not mean he is unable to – The Anatomy of an Angel shows that he is capable of creating pieces that are both aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking. I was disappointed to learn that Hirst does not create all of his work himself, instead employing people to execute his ideas after their conception, which he views as the truly creative process – but this detracts little from his talent.
Unsurprisingly, given his unconventional approach and radical, headline-grabbing pieces, he has attracted much criticism, and even less surprisingly, the tabloid press are not huge fans. One Daily Mail headline stated, “For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all.” However, I find it very difficult to claim that this is not art. I heard one man say, ‘I could’ve done this.’ But, I thought, you didn’t.
Hirst has hundreds of people every day walking around his exhibition questioning whether what they are looking at really counts as art, but the very fact that he has made them ask this question, in my opinion, is an art form. He expresses himself through a medium most would not think of, he ignites debate, inflames, and has the ability to make people re-think their pre-conceptions of the nature of art. What is more creative than that? This, coupled with that fact that much of the exhibition is genuinely breathtaking, leads me to believe that Hirst’s work is, without doubt, art.
Hirst may, indeed, be something of an eccentric, and he will always divide opinion among connoisseurs and novices alike, but he is genuinely talented. His real genius lies in his lunacy and limitless creativity; his unwillingness to compromise or conform to our expectations or artistic norms, combined with his willingness to thrust his viewer well and truly out of their comfort zone and into the deepest realms of his surreal mind. It is an undeniably intense experience, but I recommend seeing it before it closes on 9th September; if you weren’t interested in art before, this might just grab your attention.