Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jumping the Shark, or is it a Cow?: Reply to Jeffrey

Without wanting to "jump" the bracing "Slovenly Slavoj" discussion, I thought I wound return us at the same time to Damien Hirst's shark-in-formaldehyde and to JJC's provocative questions there,
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?
And also to his further commentary,
The sacrifice of the animal is part of the power of the artwork. Again, if there were a mania for these things such that no living room were complete without a shark preserved in a tank, I'd have problems -- the same problems I'd have with a hundred green bioluminescent bunnies mass produced rather than one that remains anomalous. I also wouldn't buy the artwork (or sharkwork if you will). In fact I don't particularly want to even see it. But it doesn't seem wrong to me to have produced it, especially the sacrifice was -- at least in my perhaps too generous understanding -- acknowledged and in fact mandated by the conceptual piece, which yoked the loss of life to the challenge it attempted to mount.
All of the comments following the original post are very provocative to thought, and I myself expressed the concern there over what I would term "useless" or "unnecessary" deaths, to which JJC posted the comment just above. I find myself wanting to be very cautious when making so-called ethical pronouncements, I must admit, so as to not be hypocritical, I suppose--I eat meat, by the way, but live with a vegetarian who won't let me do so at home--but also because being ethical, for me, doesn't mean never doing "wrong," but is more a habit of being that strives to be attentive to all the ways in which each one of us is deeply flawed while also desiring to be "better" and trying very hard not to hurt others and being mindful as much as possible of others' feelings and life wishes, etc.

One of my favorite texts on this subject, which I think I've mentioned before, is Neil LaBute's play The Shape of Things, in which a college art student, Evelyn A. Thompson [code for: Eve, and also "e.a.t.": hint, hint], appropriates another student, Adam, as her master's thesis. Without telling him what she is doing, she woos him and slowly gets him to "shape up"--lose weight, get a nose job, change his clothing, get rid of his old friends, etc. The play culminates in the public presentation of the thesis, at which Adam is given the shock of the realization that Evelyn has been "using" him all along, whereas he thought they were in love and that everything he did was out of that mutual love [although much of what he did was downright ethically bad, as opposed to purely selfless: he gave up his friends, who had done nothing wrong except displease Evelyn, he rejected his own "natural" style and personality, he betrayed a friend by sleeping with his fiancee, etc.]. One of the arguments that Evelyn makes to Adam at the end of the film is that if he thought he was in love, even if she did not love him back, then what he felt was "real" at the time and nothing can change that. Furthermore, everyone's ethics are in direct proportion to how much you think you can get away with at any given moment, because all that really matters are "the surface of things, the shape of things" [so, as Adam got better looking, for example, he sensed the possibility of being able to sleep with his best friend's fiancee, and when he had the chance, he did it--something he could not have even imagined himself doing when he was an overweight, slovenly geek]. In other words, ethics are for people who can't, even if they wanted to, sleep with their best friends' wives or shark hunt. When Evelyn accuses Adam, sneeringly, of wanting her to be a "good person, like you" [implying: you are not good, and I proved that already], he replies, "no, just better" [implying that ethics is not, as I would agree, about achieving a state of perfect goodness but about simply trying to be better than you are--all very Aristotlean, actually].

Well, that was long-winded, but I love that play and teach it every year alongside Paradise Lost [for, I hope, obvious reasons]. I love Evelyn's and Adam's confrontation at the end because it is impossible to choose sides--to a certain extent, they are both right: their "love" was never "real," as Adam avers, although since he thought it was at the time, it was real, as Evelyn avers. The surface of things really do matter most of the time versus what is "inside," as Evelyn argues, and for most of us, ethical principles really are easy to wave around like sticks when we ourselves can't get away with much of anything. Although it wouldn't hurt, as Adam argues, to try to be "better" nevertheless, and to try, as hard as possible, not to "use" others, especially under the excuse, "I'm an artist and the only responsibility I have is to my art," as Evelyn says. You can't entirely gloss over some of LaBute's misogny in the play, since it is Evelyn's unbridled sexuality and provocative exhibitionism that prove to be Adam's main undoing, but I try not to let that unpleasant fact stand in the way of what I think is a brilliant meditation on art, ethics, and human relations. It's relevant in my mind to our discussion here, especially as JJC initially framed it in relation to commerce and the "superagency of lucre" and to a consideration of whether or not the display of once-living bodies and body parts is a type of de-sacralization that we should worry about. Well . . . .

of course money has something to do with all this, although, like JJC, to say that art hasn't always had something to do with money would be ridiculous [although just because art and commerce have always been connected doesn't mean anything goes if someone will pay for it, in my mind--it's just, the presence of money does not necessarily "taint" the artwork, although I do not believe, as some free market advocates do that the market is inherently impersonal and therefore morally neutral]. I made this exact same point in my essay, "What Counts is Not to Say, But to Say Again" [published in the Old English Newsletter], in which I tried to assuage the fears of certain Anglo-Saxonists over Anglo-Saxon artifacts being sold on eBay, and where I wrote that,
If it weren’t for the voracious collecting endeavors of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century antiquarians such as Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Robert Harley, who purchased books and artifacts with the zeal of black market scoundrels (Cotton was even briefly jailed in 1629 for owning state papers deemed seditious by the Crown), the British Museum would have lacked its chief founding collections.

I further wrote:

I would argue that it is precisely the cultural artifact’s free market circulation through the global agora that ensures the best possible forms of its future survival. This circulation allows the artifact to be freed from the traditional (and sometimes stifling) constraints of provincial, and even, nationalist “boxes” that ultimately limit the fullest possible range of its cultural appropriation and re-appropriation, without which the item is often either “dead on arrival” or placed into the service of suspect accounts of hegemonic historical memory that often gloss over the messy social relations inherent in the transmission and replication of material culture. I do not want to imply here that museums and libraries (whether private or state-funded) have not done an excellent, even heroic, job of rescuing, preserving, conserving, interpreting, and making publicly available important cultural treasures in a manner that allows us, quite literally, to both read and write history (to “see” the past, as it were, and to place it into meaningful critical and social dialectics); rather, I want to argue that we need a more nuanced understanding of what we think we mean by “original” cultural context, and why we think it is so important that we must worry over its displacement. Furthermore, if we are going to have a vigorous discussion about claims of ownership of the past, I would ask that we commit ourselves to a rigorous theoretical examination of how medieval artifacts circulate in the world both as “things” and as bearers of “cultural meaning.” This will mean joining a theoretical discussion regarding “cultural appropriations” long in progress in the fields of ethnography, sociology, archaeology, historiography, art history, and cultural studies, but also among medieval scholars in fields other than Anglo-Saxon studies. It will also mean recognizing, as Claire Sponsler has argued, that “[t]he tendency of medieval scholars to approach their task as one of salvage has privileged the ‘artifact’ as the focal point of study rather than the ‘process’ of cultural creation and transmission.” Additionally, if we want to talk about “original archaeological contexts,” then we are also going to have to talk about what we think we mean by cultural “origins,” and we will need to pay some attention to the debates over “ethnicity” and “ethnogenesis” that are currently raging among historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers of the proto-historical and early medieval periods. And as long as we are talking about ethics, I would also ask us to spend some time considering the ways in which our insistence on the maintenance of material artifacts within tightly-controlled cultural (and often, ethnically-defined) contexts unwittingly contributes to a process of historicism whereby extremely dangerous political movements—such as Nazism and Serbian nationalism—are able to use these “pristine” cultural objects (and the academic discourses built upon them) as powerfully creative tools for constructing specious collective identities, which identities are then deployed in the service of cultural destruction on a mass scale.
And a little further on:
The fact that the question of the “original context” of the artifact is always inextricably connected to multiple frames of reference and identity—personal and public, psychic and social, material and non-material—brings us right back to ethics. The Anglo-Saxon artifact sitting in its glass case at the British Library may seem fairly benign, and we would be hard pressed to imagine a controversy erupting over its supposed provenance and meaning, or its habitation in a national museum, partly because those who had the most to gain and lose from it are so far removed from us in time. But we would do well to consider the ramifications of some recent controversies over who should own and control the physical objects of the historical past. An illustrative case in point is the bitter international dispute that erupted in the spring and summer of 2001 when Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust museum, removed from a house in Drohobych, Ukraine five fragments of newly-discovered murals, depicting scenes from Grimm’s fairy tales, painted by the Polish Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, who was shot to death by an SS officer in Nazi-occupied Drohobych (then part of Poland) in 1942. Many in Poland and Ukraine objected strongly to Yad Vashem’s removal of Schulz’s work, which they feel is a part of their living Polish and Central European Jewish heritage, but Yad Vashem insisted not only that Schulz’s work more properly belonged in their cultural and moral purview, but that they would also make the more able curators. It is often said of Schulz that he “was born an Austrian, lived as a Pole and died a Jew,” but to the representatives of Yad Vashem who defended the removal of the mural fragments, because Schulz “was a Jewish artist—forced to illustrate the walls of the home of a German SS officer as a Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust, and killed by an SS officer purely because he was a Jew—the correct and most suitable place to house the wall paintings he sketched during the Holocaust, is Yad Vashem.” Given Drohobych’s anti-Semitic history and the fact that the town contains no markers or monuments denoting its most famous son, perhaps Yad Vashem was right to take the murals; nevertheless, the debate raged through the fall and winter of 2001 and into the spring of 2002, with twenty-four American scholars of Central European history, art, and literature arguing in The New York Review of Books that Yad Vashem’s removal of the frescoes “represents an unconscionable statement of moral and cultural superiority” that is “an insult to the people of Central Europe,” as well as “doubly damaging to the local Jewish population which has remained in Drohobych.” Most important, these scholars worried that Yad Vashem’s actions were a dangerous assault on the history of both the artist’s and the region’s “pluralism,” and since all of his work is set in Drohobych, “is it not the best homage to him to salvage some part of the world he loved, in situ?” Here we see both the concern for honoring an “original” local context, as well as an attention to the multi-dimensional and “plural” nature of the historical artifact, which, perhaps, should not be “boxed in” too tightly, but how compatible are these objectives? Can the artifact, much like the individual who creates it, ever sit still? The answer is both “yes” and “no.”
So, I'm hoping that we can see some of the relevancy of what I was trying to say there, in relation to our discussion about Hirst's shark and those skulls in their glass case at the museum in London, although what I was discussing in my OEN essay were artifacts like belt clasps and helmets, not human or shark bodies, or parts thereof. And I think our consideration of whether or not it is okay to display grave remains in museums requires slightly different parameters than the ones I sketched out in my OEN essay, although they are hinted at with my example of the controversy over the Schulz wall murals, which has something to do with what we might call the curator-ship of memory, individual and more broadly cultural.

It doesn't take me too much effort to understand that the shark in formaldehyde or those human skulls, diamond-encrusted or not, have little to do with the living "persons" that once moved and expressed themselves by means of those bodies and body parts. In this sense, they are inanimate objects whose presence--whether at the bottom of an ocean in a shark graveyard or underneath a hillside somewhere in England or in a glass case in a museum--does nothing to "disturb," as it were the human and other living selves who once lived within their material "skins," and who can no longer be harmed. It is more to the question of memory that I believe we should direct our ethical concerns, or non-concerns. To those living in past histories, or even in present "alter-human" spaces like the sea, or to those, like a Barry Lopez, who take it as a personal concern to consider the sanctity of those species who cannot articulate, through speech or gesture, their own possible sacred-ness, and for whom the placement of the dead in particular places did, or does, matter, we might imagine--as historians but also as the artists of history--how some may have wished to have been left behind, in a certain place, close to their ancestors, their tribe, their home, etc. Obviously, everything is in motion all the time, and no one is safe from disturbance--from being moved from one place to another, and with no living representative to advocate otherwise, the question who cares? becomes significant. Which is kind of like another version of the old adage, "why should I care after I'm dead"? Which is another way of also saying, "now that the shark is dead, does it really matter where he ends up?" But does this mean our ethical considerations only ever extend to the question of who, sitting beside us or standing off to the side, in the present, might be hurt? Levinas once wrote that we do not have the right to leave anyone alone at his or her death, but what about after?

UPDATE: I hope that no one will think from the foregoing ruminations that I am of the unreconstructed viewpoint that no one and no thing culled from grave-sites is ever an appropriate object for an artwork, which might also be a museum exhibit. I am not. But I think the context matters a lot. So, if you dig up some Egyptian mummies and put them on display in the British Museum as artifacts of "antiquity," supposedly of interest to antiquarians, Egyptologists, and the like, and the idea behind it all is something like, "gee, weren't the Egyptians really neat?", I'm not sure I'm in favor of that, but if a group of Tibetan monks in Cambodia decide to artfully display mounds of skulls of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge in their temples and invite visitors to view these and think about their history, as well as about the souls of their former possessors, or if the curators of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC decide to have, as one of their displays, a mound of shoes taken from German and Polish Jews as they were being herded into a concentration camp, and the purpose of this display, which is both art as well as historical testimony, is to call to the viewer's mind the memory of the singular persons who once wore those homely shoes, and to reflect upon their violent and untimely demise as well as upon the small and ordinary material things that "add up" to a person, whether alive or dead, then I can live with that. Indeed, these are examples of museum-ship as the maintenance of the sacred in history.

10 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, what a rich post! Can't respond adequately to it just yet (I'm always making promises, aren't I? I'm a walking exemplar of Derridean impossibility), but here's a few more texts in reaction to this:

And as long as we are talking about ethics, I would also ask us to spend some time considering the ways in which our insistence on the maintenance of material artifacts within tightly-controlled cultural (and often, ethnically-defined) contexts unwittingly contributes to a process of historicism whereby extremely dangerous political movements—such as Nazism and Serbian nationalism—are able to use these “pristine” cultural objects (and the academic discourses built upon them) as powerfully creative tools for constructing specious collective identities, which identities are then deployed in the service of cultural destruction on a mass scale.

Did you see the NYTimes article last week on the Jewish cultural revival in Poland that's taking place without Jews? It's fascinating. Some quotes from the article:

''Jewish style'' restaurants are serving up platters of pirogis, klezmer bands are playing plaintive Oriental melodies, derelict synagogues are gradually being restored. Every June, a festival of Jewish culture here draws thousands of people to sing Jewish songs and dance Jewish dances. The only thing missing, really, are Jews.

''It's a way to pay homage to the people who lived here, who contributed so much to Polish culture,'' said Janusz Makuch, founder and director of the annual festival and himself the son of a Catholic family.

Jewish communities are gradually reawakening across Eastern Europe as Jewish schools introduce a new generation to rituals and beliefs suppressed by the Nazis and then by Communism. At summer camps, thousands of Jewish teenagers from across the former Soviet bloc gather for crash courses in Jewish culture, celebrating Passover, Hanukkah and Purim -- all in July.

Even in Poland, there are now two Jewish schools, synagogues in several major cities and at least four rabbis.

But with relatively few Jews, Jewish culture in Poland is being embraced and promoted by the young and the fashionable. . . .


Sometime in the 1970s, as a generation born under Communism came of age, people began to look back with longing to the days when Poland was less gray, less monocultural. They found inspiration in the period between the world wars, which was the Poland of the Jews.

''You cannot have genocide and then have people live as if everything is normal,'' said Konstanty Gebert, founder of a Polish-Jewish monthly, Midrasz. ''It's like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain.''

Interest in Jewish culture became an identifying factor for people unhappy with the status quo and looking for ways to rebel, whether against the government or their parents. ''The word 'Jew' still cuts conversation at the dinner table,'' Mr. Gebert said. ''People freeze.''

The revival of Jewish culture is, in its way, a progressive counterpoint to a conservative nationalist strain in Polish politics that still espouses anti-Semitic views. Some people see it as a generation's effort to rise above the country's dark past in order to convincingly condemn it.

''We're trying to give muscle to our moral right to judge history,'' said Mr. Makuch, the festival organizer.

Mr. Makuch was 14 when an elderly man in his hometown, Pulawy, told him that before the war half of the town was Jewish. ''It was the first time I had ever heard the word 'Jew,' '' Mr. Makuch recalled.

He became a self-described meshugeneh, Yiddish for ''crazy person,'' fascinated with all things Jewish. When he moved to Krakow to study, he spent his free time with the city's dwindling Jewish community. There were about 300 Jews, compared with a prewar population of about 70,000. There are even fewer today....


Along one short street, faux 1930s Jewish merchant signs hang above the storefronts in an attempt to recreate the feel of the neighborhood before the war. Many Jews are offended by the commercialization of their culture in a country almost universally associated with its near annihilation. Others argue that there is something deeper taking place in Poland as the country heals from the double wounds of Nazi and Communist domination.

''There is commercialism, but that is foam on the surface,'' Mr. Gebert said. ''This is one of the deepest ethical transformations that our country is undergoing. This is Poland rediscovering its Jewish soul.''


Surely your meditations on the dead, museums, and memory can help me understand this surprising trend (?) fashion (?) revival (?) in Poland.

I'm also reminded of an exhibit I saw a few weeks back at the Met, Venice and the Islamic World, which frustrates precisely the deplorable nostalgia for cultural purity that you describe. Here's what the page says:
The underlying theme of the exhibition focuses on the reasons why a large number of Venetian paintings, drawings, printed books, and especially decorative artworks were influenced by and drew inspiration from the Islamic world and from its art.

And then I think of this picture I took in Florence. Here, in the heart of tourist Europe, a city whose pictures hang on the wall of virtually every pizza joint in NYC (regardless of the fact that their proprietors tend to hail from Naples or Sicily), we have 'Islamic' architecture.

And so I throw a bunch of stuff in your lap, Eileen, yell 'thanks,' and scoot off, promising more, always promising more.

J J Cohen said...

Thanks, Eileen, for such a full response. I've composed a long response so pour a cup of coffee before beginning.

It’s funny, Hirst’s title for his sharkwork was the catalyst for my thinking of you: it has the playful ponderousness that I always associate with your own titles - titles, I must admit, that I always envy.

The LaBute play is fascinating, but don’t you think that his sympathy is ultimately with Adam? There is a coldness in all-devouring Evelyn that makes her more Lilith than Eve, that makes “art” as she practices it clinical rather than affective. Her mean spiritedness and insistence that art is the agony of others renders her project not ennobling, not humanistic, but cruel and de-humanizing (making a person an image, Pygmalion and Galatea in horrid reverse). An artist who desires his work so much that he makes love to stone, his ardor so sympathy-inducing a god takes pity and bestows in the sculpture the life the artist had already discerned there: that moves me. An artist whose project is to drain the life from another being and entrap him in stone of her own fashioning: not so much. Pygmalion and Galatea, by the way, had a son, Paphos; they together gave birth to a whole genre of literature reflecting upon artists, masculinism, misogyny, creative work (including, of course, LaBute’s play!). Evelyn and Adam, on the other hand, seem to have created together only an argument, and not (to my mind) an especially enduring one. But as I said, I find it very difficult to take Evelyn’s side.

If I understand you correctly, Eileen, Hirst is something of an Evelyn figure himself, transforming the unwitting shark into a lucrative conceptual piece just as she transmogrified Adam into a master’s thesis. But doesn’t Evelyn de-sacralize the human by making art from her unwitting paramour? Isn’t there more of an element of the sacred in the display of the sacrificed shark, because it was never human, and because it serves well to embody all those anxieties about our own mortality that make us human? Isn’t the Hirst piece in part a meditation on the violence that we do to animals to live our everyday lives, rather than a glossing over of that fact? I can’t see how it would not be ethically acceptable to kill the shark for art, but would be for consumption. You say that no life ought to be given uselessly (“if one does not absolutely have to go out of one's way to take a life, then he or she should not”), but what is useless or unnecessary about art? Isn’t it much more useless and unnecessary to slaughter animals for food when we don’t need to consume meat to stay alive? (Please note: although mainly a vegetarian I ask that question believing the answer is that it probably is OK for humans to eat other animals). Nobody thinks about the burger on the plate as having once been a living being; it is impossible to behold the Hirst piece without a keen awareness of its former vitality in the deep.

Related to this line of interrogation, could you explain this sentence from the comments, when you spoke about the harvesting of the shark: “Even the tiny bit of fear, or adrenaline, or what have you that may have been expressed, or felt, at the moment of the shark's "taking," would be the result of the infliction of an unnecessary harm”? What death could unfold unaccompanied by such emotion, both for the creature dying and the witnesses, even the murderers? Is the story more complicated when that fear is one of the affects a sharkwork reproduces in its viewers – that is, that it is that very dread of death that the work is built around, propagates, harnesses?

Related to museum exhibits of dead humans, and the points Karl well amplified: it’s interesting to me that the prehistory exhibits I was looking at this summer at the British Museum and Museum of London use the bodies not to construct ethnic purities (as in “This is a Celt. Note the Celtic designs on the buckle.”) but to emphasize hybridity and cultural transitions. Thus the mixed origin or grave goods receives emphasis. For example, the “Harper Road Woman” in the Museum of London has been placed at the end of the “London before London” exhibit to mark the slow transition to Roman Londinium. The plaque accompanying her (aesthetically beautiful recreated gravesite) begins “In Londinium people combined ideas and fashions with old customs, forging identities neither purely Roman nor purely British. A burial in Harper Road in Southwark reflects these changes and hints at a complex fusion of influences. The grave contained both imported and local items, and the method of burial was a mixture of old and new traditions, too.” I would go so far as to say that “we” have now officially given up on the clearly demarcated cultural identities of nineteenth century nationalism and philology in favor of cosmopolitan intermixtures that do their own important cultural work in a globalized environment that is well served by citizens who can see themselves not as belonging to segregated, small units but to a vast marketplace where everything is already intermingled and in a way unowned.

Finally, you say “It doesn't take me too much effort to understand that the shark in formaldehyde or those human skulls, diamond-encrusted or not, have little to do with the living "persons" that once moved and expressed themselves by means of those bodies and body parts.” But I think they do - at least as far as the skulls are concerned. It’s true, the human life may have drained from the calcium architecture, but if that life has been lived in part as a (fearful, mortal) individual and in part as a collective across which much of the identity was scattered (and through which the individual identity was upheld) - that is, if we are in part our lonely selves and in part our families, our nations, our alliances, our histories - then we are also in part our futures. I do not believe that means bones should not be displayed in museums; quite the contrary. I believe that memory is a constant and actual part of a being, not a separable postmortem after-effect. Memory can cling to artifacts and observers; memory can be revivified. Eileen, you write that “Levinas once wrote that we do not have the right to leave anyone alone at his or her death, but what about after?” I say: that “after” marks a profound change, of course, but that “after” isn’t the point at which memory begins, or the point where it detaches itself from the person; it’s the point where memory becomes further sutured to the social structures in which the death occurs. Memory is always collective, and memory requires as much nurturing while attached to living bodies as it does to the dead.

Eileen Joy said...

Well, I took Jeffrey's advice and ordered a tall cafe au lait at my Conway, SC wireless spot, Port City Java, and after drinking it while reading JJC's response here, and also reveling in the fact that the temperature around here has finally dipped down into the mid-80s [it was 104 degrees a couple of days ago and don't even ask me about the humidity!], making the outdoors a place we can venture back out to [finally] and maybe even play a game of bocce later [our new family past-time, best played at near-dusk with limoncellas and pretzels], I feel quite content. And now I have to think about the dead again? Sheesh.

All kidding aside, of course I agree with you, JJC, about Evelyn in Labute's play: indeed, she's a mean-spirited and heartless "c---," as Labute, via Adam, makes clear at the end of the play. I am always very discomfited by Labute's misogyny, in *all* of his plays, and yes, it's quite clear that Evelyn is the villain of the play and that we are supposed to sympathize with poor, gullible [and even, lovable] Adam, but I also don't think Labute lets us completely off the hook, either, in that, again, much of what Evelyn says in her final speeches does, in some ways, ring true, and we have to confront that, I think. In other words, she can't just be dismissed, out of hand, as a mean and heartless user of other people [although she is] because she raises prickly questions about art, the truth, emotions, and ethics that stick, somehow, to all of us, in one way or another. For example, we all know beauty is, supposedly, only skin deep, but we are still, often [ethically] fatally, attracted to it. We want to believe love is real, but how much of it is just "in our head" while the object of our affection is thinking something else entirely, and yet, if we don't know that, we really *don't* care? Would we sleep with our best friend's wife, if she were beautiful and lovable enough and wanted us to? As much as Labute's work always discomfits me, in terms of its figuring, especially, of male-female romantic relationships [and sometimes male-male homosocial relationships], in which everyone is always depicted as pretty much heartless, selfish, and cruel, I've been thinking about pitching a new course within my department's new "crossing boundaries" major authors course [devoted to two "major" authors whose work comes from completely different genres, periods, etc., but which shares certain preoccupations] that would be devoted to Milton and Labute and the subject of "sin": I think that would be a real kick for me and my students. But anyway . . . .

As to the playful ponderousness of my titles, thank you. But could we say, instead, playful deadly seriousness? [haha] Speaking of deadly . . . .

I'm actually glad you've turned the conversation a bit toward what Hirst's aims might have been. In other words, the shark-work might have been, "in part a meditation on the violence that we do to animals to live our everyday lives, rather than a glossing over of that fact." You further write that you "can’t see how it would not be ethically acceptable to kill the shark for art, but would be for consumption." I agree, by the way. As a very rarely occasional eater of meat, thus making me somewhat of a hypocrite for what I am about to say next, I do not think the mass production and slaughter of animals to serve my appetite is at all necessary. It is useless, often cruel, and I don't need cheeseburgers or flank steaks with aoli sauce to survive [or even to be happy]. But to go back to the idea that Hirst may have been wanting us to think about, as he puts it in his title, "the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living," how, more specifically, does Hirst's artwork accomplish this, let's say, imposing idea? Is the suspension of a shark in liquid [formaldehyde or otherwise] meant to invoke how the shark was, while living [floating/suspended, as it were, in the ocean], but since we, the viewers, know the shark is dead we have to imagine what might have been, for the shark, the *impossibility* of the thought of its own death, and thus, we also have to think about our own suspension in the present time/moment of viewing the shark and how our own death seems "impossible"? But at the same time, given our current culture, in which death is, quite literally, on display all the time [via news broadcasts, streaming online video, photographs from the Iraq and other wars, horror films, historical museum exhibits, etc.], do we really need Hirst's shark to conceptualize the "impossibility of death"? I would grant that it is a more playful [and hence, more artistic, and even, more "safe"] mode for doing so, but then it also just seems kind of silly, much like Jeff Koons's vacuum cleaner in a plexiglass case. I am a *huge* fan of modern and contemporary art, including conceptual art [especially Jonathan Borofsky, Francesco Clemente, Stanley Spencer, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, Christo, Francis Bacon, Eric Fischl, Cindy Sherman, David Hockney, the Starn Brothers, and Andy Goldsworthy, just to name some favorites], but I've never really been enamored of Hirst's work--this may just be a taste issue on my part, although I would be lying if I did not admit that I usually slot him into the "charlatan" category, along with Koons and others of that ilk [pop art gone baroque? or something like that?]. I would also have to admit that I prefer artworks that are challenging in terms of their historical specificity [which is why I love Kiefer and Richter and Spencer and the Starn Brothers], beautiful in their mastery of a medium [which is why I love Rothko, Fischl, Bacon, and Goldsworthy], and also playful in a way that seems "humane" somehow [Klee, Sherman, Starn Brothers again]. I can't place Hirst, for myself anyway, into any of these . . . what are they? categories of judgment?

I don't think art is ever useless or un-necessary, by the way, although on a more philosophical level, I think it has to maintain a certain status as "unnecessary" in order to free itself of any restraints on its creativity: in this sense, art is always pure play, or maybe should be. We don't need art in order to keep our lungs and hearts in good working order, or to feed our stomachs, but we do need it in order to satisfy our desire for "beauty" [which I believe in, albeit it is determined differently in different times and places and by different registers of "taste"], which is a kind of cognitive "relief," perhaps even a kind of sustenance for the soul, and even more so, to be able to re-conceptualize our experience[s] and histories in a way that frees us from the fetters of overly mundane and too regularized/normalized modes of perception. So, art is both unnecessary but also useful.

JJC, you also wrote,

". . . . could you explain this sentence from the comments, when you spoke about the harvesting of the shark: 'Even the tiny bit of fear, or adrenaline, or what have you that may have been expressed, or felt, at the moment of the shark's taking, would be the result of the infliction of an unnecessary harm'? What death could unfold unaccompanied by such emotion, both for the creature dying and the witnesses, even the murderers? Is the story more complicated when that fear is one of the affects a sharkwork reproduces in its viewers – that is, that it is that very dread of death that the work is built around, propagates, harnesses?"

Well, of course there is no death [except for the one that, perhaps, comes in sleep or is the result of a shock to the physiology that is so sudden there is no time to process it via the nervous system] that does not carry with it some measure, however small, of fear and pain and grief, etc. On this point, I agree with you, and if the artwork Hirst constructed was made partly to induce these feelings, on behalf of the shark [or of other deaths, human and otherwise, more generally], in the viewer, I could see that as a worthy imperative to make such an artwork. BUT, my larger point [I think/hope] was that, again, we should try as hard as we can to not go out of our way to inflict the kind of harm against living creatures that would induce these negative feelings and sensations. And if I could take my own self seriously for once, I would stop eating meat today, right now. People have all sorts of reasons for being vegetarian, from the politics of animal rights to health issues to a general love of animals, etc. My partner initially became one after watching an Oprah Winfrey show [many many years ago, actually] on the cattle industry, but also because she is worried about health issues, such as cancer and heart disease. If I were to become vegetarian, it would not be for health reasons [I don't think I've ever cared enough about my health--oops, I'm a hedonist], nor because I've read too much Peter Singer and J.M. Coetzee [although I have], but likely because, as a Hollywood actress once put it [yes, I'm seriously quoting a Hollywood actress], she doesn't want to ingest the misery felt by the animal who died for her cheeseburger. Likewise, by viewing the Hirst artwork, and knowing that the shark was killed specifically for the artwork, I would not be able to escape feeling some small measure of guilt on the shark's behalf. I feel the same way when I go to the zoo. I didn't trap and catch the animals, or breed them, and put them on display, but when I look at the African gazelle over the split-rail fence and concrete trench that separates us, I feel implicated in her imprisonment. I can't help it.

Finally, JJC, you also wrote, toward the end of your response,

". . . . you say 'It doesn't take me too much effort to understand that the shark in formaldehyde or those human skulls, diamond-encrusted or not, have little to do with the living persons that once moved and expressed themselves by means of those bodies and body parts.” But I think they do - at least as far as the skulls are concerned. It’s true, the human life may have drained from the calcium architecture, but if that life has been lived in part as a (fearful, mortal) individual and in part as a collective across which much of the identity was scattered (and through which the individual identity was upheld) - that is, if we are in part our lonely selves and in part our families, our nations, our alliances, our histories - then we are also in part our futures."

Here, I couldn't agree with you more, and I really appreciate the further prod to my own thinking here. I was mainly trying to make it clear that I did not want to appear as if I were fetishizing the remains of the dead, as if *everything* that has ever died, anywhere, is somehow so sacred and "mysterious" in and of itself, that we should never touch it, look at it, display it, etc. But to clarify, as you do, regarding my own postings on this subject, that the "after" of "after death" is not the clean break we sometimes imagine it to be, between past and future, is beautifully put by you when you write that,

"it’s the point where memory becomes further sutured to the social structures in which the death occurs."

Perhaps it is to this "suturing" that historians, such as ourselves, should be the doctors, perhaps also, the attendants?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Trying to synthesize this rich discussion into a manageable morsel, I think what has happened is that we've moved from considering the ethics of shark pickling per se, as a particular kind artifactual making, to considering the ethics of the pickled shark as cultural process (Eileen's artifact as process, Jeffrey's memory). Which means that we have perceived more clearly that the goodness or badness of Hirst's work has everything to do with what it means, in other words with how human beings use it socially, intellectually, etc. The question of the acceptableness of sacrificing animals for art (how close and yet so far is Hirst from those ancient cave painters OF animal bodies!) still stands but only in relation to the question of the ends it serves, which means OUR ends.

Now perhaps this is itself what is most good about Hirst's work, that by putting on display an equation of killing and making, by displaying art as sacrifice, it pushes precisely the kinds of questions we want to ask about it, about the ethics of art and the ethics of interpretation, questions which in their fullness and consequentiality ultimately come down not simply to who is right and who is wrong in interpreting the work but to how good our interpretive process -- the cultural formaldehyde that Hirst's work is preserved in -- is, as part of history, as part of the world. So a big part of the good of Hirst's work is that is punctures the cultural bubble, the bubble of "culture," of the museum and gallery and ruptures the art/world boundary by putting it on conspicuous display as impenetrable glass and preservative.

BUT. Does the fact that we and say the world more generally make good out of Hirst's work make it good? Of course not, just as war also is an opportunity for all kinds of good. The ethics of the artifact as cultural process, the ethics of memory, cannot be divorced from the ethics of the artifact, because we can and must always ask ourselves, which is of the essence of living ethically as Eileen points to, could we have done better? Might we have achieved these ends through better, more humane, more loving, and more _efficient_ means? Through better LABOR? At some point the goodness of a thing must touch the thing itself, the very form through which it "expresses" whatever we see in it (above all in art, which is about embodiment, about, as Gadamer says, how 'the work of art does not simply refer to something, because what it refers to is actually there. We could say that the work of art signifies an increase in being').

Hirst's work does not signify to me such an increase in being. Perhaps it is "only" an intuition, something at the point of intersection between labor and conscience, but thinking in this direction leads me to a pretty firm conclusion that Hirst's work, like his animals, is dead, that however good it is, it is by its very nature bad work. Which means that it is decadent, wasteful, unnecessary, and generally an index of its own failure as art. It doesn't pass the peasant test (a waste of good meat, inter alia) and when I close my eyes and envision the truest most beautiful world, I seem many made things from this one, but not Hirst's.

Karl Steel said...

I wondered if I could take Hirst's piece as forcing the world into the museum to demonstrate that human civilization is also, and so far as animals are concerned, fundamentally, animal death. Our existence--where our = the kind of people who go to museums to wonder at Hirst's work or the kind of people who get people to work for us so we can buy Hirst's work--means the deaths of sharks, cows, and innumerable, far less iconic, creatures. With that in mind, the shark is not only (note that I didn't say merely) one dead shark; nor is it an image of death, whether its own or, because it's a shark after all, our own death;* it is an image of the indiscriminately destructive power of a civilization capable of capturing sharks in the Southern Hemisphere, transporting them to the UK, and suspending them in formaldehyde (a pollutant). Precisely because we have conquered the shark and the world more generally, we are looking at our own, eventual deaths, the eventual, perhaps to-be-longed-for (especially if you're a shark), death of the museum-making civilization.

But then there's this:

Might we have achieved these ends through better, more humane, more loving, and more _efficient_ means? Through better LABOR?

Well put. As easily as I can allow myself to become fixated on Hirst's shark, I wonder if it's a disservice to the shark, or the shark-as-world, to surround it with exegesis, to make it a conversation object. The problem that's gnawing me, apart from an incipient headcold, is interpretation as special pleading (special pleading's on my mind a bit because of the Zizek post). If the piece is doing what I suggest it's doing, then at best I am, along with Hirst, self-awarely complicit in the deplorable processes it depicts. What's the justification?


* From Shark Fear, Shark Awareness Issue 3:
"Sharks are not necessary in order to fear sharks. We want to put you directly in touch with your fear, eliminating the shark in the process. All proceeds generated by the Society of Shark Fear will go toward copyrighting the animal that is the shark. By owning these animals, we will then be able to regulate the imagery surrounding them. Rest assured that we desire only to focus your fear and supply you with appropriate images with which to do so. We will not eliminate your access to these images. In fact, we will give you more access to shark derived information that you've ever dreamed of. However, we will screen ideas for proper motives and quality."

Karl Steel said...

self-awarely complicit in the deplorable processes it depicts

I should say: "depicts and enacts."

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Cool Shark Zine!

Karl, the substance of your last question was bugging me all day yesterday after I came down on Hirst so I'll respond to it.

As easily as I can allow myself to become fixated on Hirst's shark, I wonder if it's a disservice to the shark, or the shark-as-world, to surround it with exegesis, to make it a conversation object.

That depends on the aim and nature of our gloss, doesn't it? I'm not worried about our glossing serving or disserving either the shark (who is no longer there) or Hirst, who is irrelevant. That seems like a pious or impious abstraction. What matters is how well our exegesis serves each other, the living and the to be living, human and non-human. If our gloss is good in that sense then we have done good by the shark, not because we need to worry about the shark (who is now non-existent or living in another form), but because it has realized the dead shark as a opportunity for good, for something better perhaps than what Hirst did with it. Which goes back to the ethics of interpretation in all of its senses.

If the piece is doing what I suggest it's doing, then at best I am, along with Hirst, self-awarely complicit in the deplorable processes it depicts. What's the justification?

My only way through this problem (and I do need help!) is to understand that justification is not the issue, neither of the art or the exegesis or of anything else one does. To trouble about justification, however inevitable it is, is in a way to have already left the space of moral awareness, to place principles before reality, to live in an ends-justify-the-means, i.e. fictional, kind of universe. How much of what people do is justifiable? Isn't just about everything a sin of commission or a sin of ommission of one kind or another? (think of the electricity wasted on Karaoke!) Which is why I find it more helpful to think about degrees of good, instead of good and evil. The badness of something is unintelligible without, inseparable from the good it might have been, the potential good that it is less good than. That we are doing good work, i.e. the best work we can (and the work we know how to do), with Hirst's art, does not justify it, nor does it render us complicit in whatever failures it embodies.

Ever since he made that comment about the 9/11 attack as an aesthetic accomplishment (which was of course true) I've thought that it was a subconscious disclosure of the nature of his own work as an irresponsible act rich with critical possibilities, above all, for critiques of interpretation.
What it means that Nicholas Watson, the medievalist, made virtually the same comment to me over dinner in grad school, I do not know!

Many more thoughts to express, especially about the problem of necessity, but other necessities call!

p.s. my heartfelt simpleton answer to what we should do with Hirst's shark is to cut through the glass, evaporate the formaldehyde, with a burning laser beam of love for the shark that was (is).

J J Cohen said...

So much to say, so little time. It's going to be a week of barely being on the blog (annual "Camp Dad" as Kid #1 likes to call it; today was hiking along the Potomac, Warhammer, and ... the library).

Anyway, as to death being on display, the process of moving a 95 year old uncle to an assisted living center (which we all know is an assisted dying center) reminds me that death may be everywhere on display, as Eileen says, but it tends to be the death of distant others. Death closer to home tends to be sanitized, talked about in euphemism, hidden behind doors. We are, after all, a cult of eternal youth, and death kind of gets in the way of our consumption of diet Coke and Botox.

I'm also a big fan of modern art, especially kitschy pieces with a serious subcurrent. Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined cup, for example. I would never say that I have good taste in art, and I would even go so far as to say that neither does Damien Hirst ... but there is something in the sharwork that moves me. I disagree with Nicola about the epasant test as well: very few artworks pass the waste-not and utility standards -- and I also think it'd be more of waste to devour the shark than display him. That doesn't mean though that I'm not attracted to Nicola's idea of liberating it from its plexiglass and formaldehyde; actually, a conceptual piece like that almost demands such a reaction.

Other than that, Eileen, I'm just nodding in agreement with all the smart things you've said, esp. re: memory.

Karl, I just don't think we've conquered either the shark or the world. Anywa, to surround something with exegesis isn't to render it an object, I think, so much as to constitute a living community around its death. Doesn't that honor the shark, or honor death more generally, by allowing it to be spoken about and probed rather than shunted away (onto those distant others who die every day on TV while "we" expire invisibly in assisted living centers)?

Eileen Joy said...

Giving some room to the consideration that Hirst's intent with his shark- and cow-works may have been to call attention to the ways in which, as Karl might put it, that human culture depends upon [often hidden] animal death, and allowing, with Jeffrey, that Hirst's art might "honor the shark, or honor death more generally, by allowing it to be spoken about and probed rather than shunted away (onto those distant others who die every day on TV while "we" expire invisibly in assisted living centers)," I have to also ask, pace Nicola, whether or not these particular art pieces of Hirst's represent the best possible artistic "labor" on the subject. In other words, what about something like Charles Burnett's brilliant but little-seen 1977 film "Killer of Sheep," set in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, and slated for re-release this coming year? Go here for more on that:

http://www.killerofsheep.com

Or Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," and so on and so forth? BUT, to play devil's advocate with myself, I can feel myself coming around to JJC's appreciation for Hirst's shark-work, partly because, with all of the senseless animal death that really *is* all around us all the time, yet we don't pay any attention to it, and are even able to ingest it with barely a ripple of a misgiving [yum, yum, cheeseburgers!], then maybe the death of one shark, purposefully engineered to help create a certain *display* of useless animal death, might not be such a waste of artistic labor, although if you pause to reflect where Hirst's art is typically installed, isn't the audience for this message already *at* that conceptual level?

Karl Steel said...

Hit and run post, via Boing Boing, something that I think will wow all fans of bioluminescent bunnies and perhaps gain the approval of even the most squantinaphilic of us: check this out.

..you pause to reflect where Hirst's art is typically installed, isn't the audience for this message already *at* that conceptual level?

Maybe. Not at the Met though.