July 1, 2004
Dumb Words?: God and the New British Artists
The New British Artist movement first made headlines this side of the Atlantic with the arrival of the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in October 1999. In the ensuing protests, some of the pieces became iconic, albeit more as fodder for calls to censor the show than as works of art: Tracey Emin's tent stitched with the names of everyone with whom she's shared a bed; Jake and Dinos Chapman's sculptures of tortured and mutilated bodies; Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," a shark suspended in a glass tank of formaldehyde.
The movement's major themes are death and human loneliness, accompanied by a desperate stance on communication. Hirst, who claims to have "thought about death every day, since birth," laments that death must remain a concept, that it can never be known. These artists conceive their conceptual art, then, as attempts at expressing the inexpressible -- through visceral experience, intellectual allusion, metaphor, and symbolism.
In "holding a mirror up to life," art, as Hirst defines it, repeatedly works over the same questions, questions Gauguin used as a title for a painting in 1897: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Hirst relies on equally lengthy titles, as well as accompanying texts, to frame his work. Some of these texts complement the art, others do little more than offer the audience an instant decoder. Of interest to the Sightings crowd is that, increasingly, such titles and texts involve religious imagery.
In interviews, Hirst can dismiss "Art" and "God" as "dumb words," but only when bolstered by such "dumb words" does Hirst's art become art. A smoked-out cigarette butt is, by itself, just trash. But framed in a metal display by white gallery walls, in the context of art history, the butt becomes a commodity in the economy of art. And one now-inherent attribute of that economy is that viewers of said cigarette butt should be able to plumb it for depths of meaning.
For such a process, religious imagery provides a rich and ready-made set of references. As such, its use can become a crutch -- tacking an allusion to God or the Church to an otherwise meaningless object, the artist establishes instant meaning.
Of the cigarette butt display, Hirst allegorizes as follows: each cigarette is a life cycle, the light is God, the ashtray death -- "But as soon as you read it like that you feel ridiculous. Because being metaphorical is ridiculous but it's unavoidable."
Ridiculously easy, say critics, quickly dismissing Hirst as over-intellectualizing and his work as degrading to Christianity, animal carcasses, and the art-making process. Yet the lapsed Catholic devotes an entire solo show to biblical themes and narratives. Thirteen poems about the Last Supper accompany a table in which the same number of ping-pong balls float atop jets of wine. Blood-splattered cabinets, cow heads, and monkey hands are given ostensible meaning by the Christian stories to which they are tied.
Surely religious imagery is not an "unavoidable" component of the contemplation of death. Hirst's famous shark tank strikes dread and awe in viewers, and its non-religious title is merely a supplement, a slight guide, not an explaining away through allegorical interpretation. But four paintings composed from dead flies, each named after deadly diseases? Were they not linked to the four evangelists, I strongly suspect we would not approach them with the gospels in mind.
The lesson of Hirst's hit-or-miss oeuvre is that shock value must never serve as a smoke screen. At issue is not heresy or taboo but sloppy art, masked by flimsy allusion. Take away the biblical citations and you are left with rotting flesh and a suspiciously hefty price tag.
In recent news, a London warehouse fire destroyed millions of dollars worth of work by the New British Artist movement, including Emin's tent and the Chapman brothers' "Hell" series. Hirst's massive bronze "Charity," representing a vandalized collection box for the Spastics Society, survived, protected by a firewall, if not by an act of God.
Spencer Dew is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His work focuses on contemporary fiction and traditional Jewish theories of language and textuality.