Friday, July 20, 2007

For Eileen: A Shark in Formaldehyde

The following editorial from today's NYT made me think of Eileen, who has several times propounded her thesis of the superagency of lucre here at ITM. I had once intended to post on Hirst's conceptual piece "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (what an Eileen Joy-like title that is!) and had apparently harvested the shark image from the web last year, but if I did ever blog about it my early Alzheimer's has wiped that memory from me. Anyway, from the NYT OpEd page, on the controversial (is there any other kind?) conceptual artist Damien Hirst:

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?]


Nicola Masciandaro said...

I suspect that Hirst's appeal (apart from transferring dead animal bodies from the natural history museum to the art gallery and thus 'reliquizing' them, reinvesting the corpse, whose magic presence has been killed by science, with the secular sacrednesss of art) has to do with a homology, very much implied in Jeffrey's comments, between grandiloquent art economics and the pieces themselves as allegories of the same. Thus a kind of transparent tautology seems to hang over Hirst's work: as the formaldehyded beast (an overgrown 'sample' that, like a 1:1 scale map, undoes its own usefulness - another tautology!) is an ostentatious entombment of something that lives elsewhere, so art is preserved by big money. Id est, money = formaldehyde.

Karl Steel said...

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

Surely the "but" is the problem here. And the missing point between the "tank" and the "but" (which should be an "and"): "You may think you are looking at a dead shark in a tank, [which is/means/aims to express (insert Nicola's comment here, for example)], and..." I think the editorial then could have referenced something like, say, Richard Ohmann ("Culture cannot, without straining, be understood as a reflex of basic economic activity, when culture is itself a core industry and a major source of capital accumulation").

More on death later?

Eileen Joy said...

One initial, and likely simplistic, way to respond to Hirst's shark-tank artwork is to say that I really really really do not like the idea of animals having to be killed for a piece of art--that is what I would call a truly "useless" appropriation, or justification, of an animal's death, never mind the fact that the shark had to be "harvested," as it were, from its "world." Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes, I know animals [including humans] die all the time, and I mustn't demonstrate ethical outrage against the "fishing" of this shark unless I can muster equal outrage for shark-fishing in general--whether as art or food, no one needs these sharks to be killed. It isn't *necessary*. But without romanticizing death--whether the death of a shark or of a citizen of Roman London--I don't think it's too risky to make the argument that if one does not absolutely have to go out of one's way to take a life, then he or she should not. 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.

Opps--must run! More later.

Karl Steel said...

By the way, did anyone else see this?

(via Boing Boing)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

You know, it's funny -- and no doubt ethically inconsistent. Harvesting sharks en masse for shark fin soup bothers me. Harvesting one, not so much. But I'm also not overly bothered by vacationers who go big game fishing, harvest a swordfish, and later grill it up and eat it. I'd never do it myself, and honestly I'd prefer a single shark as art than a thousand on boats for sport and food ... but I wouldn't sign a petition to ban sport fishing (even if I would never do it myself).

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. Nicola is quite right: capital is that formaldehyde. But formaldehyde has a tendency to leak, and there's a way that shark and its artist and its buyer and the museum get more than they bargained for with the display.

Anonymous said...

There is definately a way that the problem of numbers and dare I say it, "context" seem to color our first reactions to this. Lots of sharks vs. one shark. Art vs. game-fishing.

I have been the mostly faithful vegitarian for a good while now, and did feel similarly to Eileen about the harvesting animals for art.

I remeber feeling the same way even after the first time I saw a screen of Brakhage's "mothlight" which I feel at the same time a phenomonal and productive work.

But also, I have this feeling of "well, now that its done that piece is damn interesting"--even as I have an impulse t mourn the shark. I mention mourning since we are using the word sacrifice which brings me right back to Lindow Man. How do we feel about his killers? How did he feel about them?

Now this shark on the other hand--just a shark right? A map of itself, as nicola said

"an overgrown 'sample' that, like a 1:1 scale map, undoes its own usefulness" --which, if I am not wrong, is not too disimilar to a formulation concerning history and communities that Eileen has mentioned on this site (??)--this map--produced sacrificially--as an excess--is a very perverse "gift of death" because it fails to be one, attempting to give but only producing a reserve. I cannot help but wonder if, instead of a secular sacred, it is de-secularizing the secular--in the manner of a high literary modernist. I catch a whif of Ezra Pound somewhere in the exchage of salt water for pickling juice.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dan, not that this makes any difference ... but I'm a mostly faithful vegetarian as well. Lacking a desire to consume most animals, though, doesn't really change how I feel about this one shark, transformed as it has been. Then again, I do own a pair of leather shoes and ...

But yes, thanks for connecting this back to Lindow Man and mourning. Sacrifice would be quite empty without that.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Well, not empty exactly -- it'd stage an excessive submission to authority. Mourning (instead of identification) might be a way around that submission.