Dumping the Shark
In August, the shark in formaldehyde — Damien Hirst’s signature work — will come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan from Steven A. Cohen, a hedge fund trader and art collector. Mr. Hirst’s shark, whose proper name is “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” is usually called a piece of conceptual art. So when you go to visit the shark (actually the second to be entombed in this vitrine) it will be worth considering the entire scope of the conceptualism surrounding it.First, you will have to shelve any objections you might have to the idea of killing a female tiger shark in the interests of Mr. Hirst’s career. You might even wonder whether the catching of the shark, somewhere off the coast of Australia, wasn’t in its own way more artful than the shark’s lamentable afterlife suspended in formaldehyde.
But the real concepts here are money and reputation. It may appear as if Mr. Cohen is doing the Met a favor by lending this work. In fact, it is the other way around. The billionaire, number 85 on the most recent Forbes 400 has been collecting art at a furious rate since 2000, and he is being courted by museums in the way that prodigiously wealthy collectors have always been courted. Part of that courtship is, of course, endorsing and validating the quality of the collector’s eye. The only defense against the skewing of the art market created by collecting on Mr. Cohen’s scale is to appropriate the collector himself.
The difference in this case is Mr. Hirst, who has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art. No artist has managed the escalation of prices for his own work quite as brilliantly as Mr. Hirst. That is the real concept in his conceptualism, which has culminated in his most recent artistic farce: a human skull encrusted in diamonds.
You may think you are looking at a dead shark in a tank, but what you’re really seeing is the convergence of two careers, the coming together of two masters in the art of the yield.
Maybe. Then again, artists have historically had patrons, and it isn't all that unusual for them to seek the most money they can extract for their talent -- we'd be missing a little thing called the Italian Renaissance without that urge. In speaking of the shark as if it had been pulled from her oceanic eden to the hell of formaldehyde display, too, the piece doesn't allow that Hirst might have been up to something more than profiting from the suffering of animals -- that is, how fair is it to reduce Hirst's motivation to bald careerism? If he has anything in common with the rest of us mortals, his production of art is surely more complicated (and more desire-filled) than that.
I'm willing to be persuaded that something is lost when art exists for its investment value alone. Still, I'd rather have “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” exist than not, even if I disagree with its very title (a giant shark -- even or maybe especially a dead giant shark -- makes me contemplate my mortality in ways both mindful and physical).
Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull was all the rage in the London media while I was there, mostly in a "can you believe it?!" way. More interesting to me at the time were the artfully arranged skulls in the Museum of London, possibly the decapitated victims of Boudica's devastation of Roman London. I kept thinking: what happens when you display these remnants of the murdered dead with subtle lighting and a geometric arrangement? (They were stacked in a vertical column, with pots in a similar floating column alongside). What's the difference between the skulls of history in the Museum of London and Hirst's aesthetically overloaded display of bone? Can curators be artists? Should they be?
What do you think?
[Of related interest: Tiny Lunar Art; The Slow Continuum That Proceeds in Your Absence; Ant Love; Are bioluminescent bunnies queer?; Postcard from a Former Student; Inapposite Art; Lindow Man I; Who Mourns for Lindow Man?]