The role of Art – and the artist

Superb John F. Kennedy quote:

‘When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.’

Taken from an article on the politics of liberalism in the context of warmongering

I read JFK to be referring to art-cum-poetry as something aspirational and something that transcends ego in its conception, creation, and presentation.

I wonder how my brother would respond to JFK’s perspective, then, in the light of his disillusionment with Damien Hirst’s latest piece of grotesque-ry, the skull of diamonds. I hope, like me, he would question whether Hirst’s piece is, indeed, poetry or art. Its nifty form of (self-?) marketing, rather than the object itself, might be the real artwork. The Independent’s Thomas Sutcliffe writes of the pricetag of £50m (compared with the raw materials cost of c.£14m) being integral to the object,

‘encrusting the most universal symbol of the futility of worldly goods with a skin so precious that the viewer almost forgets what lies beneath.’

(I myself don’t experience any forgetfulness of ‘what lies beneath’!) Apart from the layers of paradox, does the skull have something useful to say? For its future owner, I’m pleased the skull comes with written guarantees that all the diamonds are sourced from conflict-free zones. And my curiosity in the piece is certainly piqued by the titles Hirst has given five reproductions, on which my brother has commented. (I wonder what God makes of this offering; a sixth print might be titled, ‘For the Love of God, Look After Yourself’.)

Taking JFK as my cue, I’m not clear what ‘touchstone of our judgement’ Hirst is providing, nor the generic human truth to which he might be referring. Could you imagine the skull enabling the formation of a sacred, reverential place, a place of worship? Might it not be a tad distracting?! These for me are the crunch questions. Skulls and skeletons have, after all, been used for aeons to provoke observers into reflecting on their place in, and how they belong to, the world – all those Italian Last Judgement frescoes, for example. If Hirst’s diamond skull is to be bought, would its buyer present it in a place where the masses could reflect on its significance, if it has any?

I for one would like Hirst at the very least to recoup his expenses and reinvest the profits in worthwhile causes. Maybe that’s what he already has in mind, but I’d like to see him undertaking artistic works of more-concerted activism – if, that is, he has the capacity to transfer his creativity to that domain of behaviour. As such, he’d be taking on board the analyses of the likes of Suzi Gablik, the art critic who wrote ‘Has Modernism Failed?‘ and the superb ‘Re-enchantment of art‘.

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5 Responses to “The role of Art – and the artist”

  1. Mark Meynell Says:

    Watcha – i wouldn’t say i was expressing disillusionment at all – or if that came across, then it was definitely not the intention. Merely drawing on the fact that Hirst himself is the one obsessed with mortality and what to do about it. I found the skull rather spectacular, as i think it was intended to be. Though i am not sure i could have it in my living room, even if i could afford it.

  2. Dr Frank Says:

    I took your analysis of the skull failing to communicate something more profound than a fixation with mortality to be one of disillusionment. If not using that word, what word would you use? Disappointment? Sorry if I misrepresented your perspective.

  3. Marion Says:

    I always had a soft spot for Damain Hirst. I think that he captures and expresses the Zeitgeist, or the leading paradigms and longings of our culture, rather well. The question remains whether his art can offer to those who are rather disillusioned with, or allienated from, the present state of our being ways of creative engagement or even transformation and healing. The Damian Hirst of German culture is probably Joerg Immendorf (who also has found favour in Saatchi’s eyes). But like most German artists, he sees himself as a political activist. He desires art not only to express our present but to open up ways of discourse by which the myths which define our history and future possibilities can be transformed. Well, given that war and destruction has once again arrived in the world of Immendorf and of my parents, who live near Rostock and Heiligendamm, I hope that he succeeds. However, his last paintings reveal more and more doubt about the artist’s unique potential as the ear, memory, and vision of our society (http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/artpages/immendorff_Solo.htm). Maybe he just sulks too much and needs to be cheered up by Hirst’s laughing scull? At least Immendorf donates the best part of his earnings towards medical research.

  4. Marion Says:

    Made me aware that the poor soul Immendorf has just moved on from this earth. Well, maybe his art will survive …

  5. Dr Frank Says:

    Hi M, not sure whether those who feel disenfranchised from ‘ways of creative engagement’ are given much hope by Hirst’s skull, which to my mind states that if you’re to be an artist, you need a ridiculous amount of money upfront. You’re maybe right that he reflects something of the zeitgeist, but I’d say he reflects ‘cravings’ more than longings – which to my mind are more soulful and less interested in what’s shiny and immediate. I doubt most people have a ‘longing’ to become a diamond-encrusted skull, whatever Hirst says (cf. quote in my brother’s blog). I found Immendorf’s picture that you linked to very pertinent, and think it to be more ‘art’ than is Hirst’s skull, which I take to be more marketing. (But, yes, marketing what?) I’m curious by what Suzi Gablik writes about, because it’s art that’s much more engaged and implicitly social-cum-ecological and (potentially) transformative. E.g. the artist who documented her performance of going around shaking the hands of, and thanking, New York’s garbage collectors.

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