God Has Become Cancer:
Damien Hirst, Religion, & Death
For the radical Right the issue of contemporary art is something of a non-starter. The past century or so of developments in the fine arts have been dominated by American (and often Jewish) theoreticians who have fashioned a sensibility wherein anything that smacks of European tradition is automatically verboten, unless it can be refracted through a distorting lens of ironic detachment or disinheritance.
Given this, the attitude of nationalist commentators is to dismiss contemporary art out of hand and to long for a return to a more representational art. One of the best statements of this position is provided by Lasha Darkmoon.
While this is certainly a coherent position, and one that accords well with the observations of the common man, it is lacking in visionary ambition. What I mean by this is that the desire to return to something resembling Renaissance art is a limited and parochial view of art history. The sort of art produced from the 15th and 16th centuries onwards was visually determined by the discovery of perspective in the early 15th century. It is certainly true that this art represents some of the jewels in the western crown but it is not really Traditional art at all.
In Traditional art symbolism and meaning take precedence over naturalism. The use of perspective in art tends to elevate naturalism above meaning, or at least it greases the tracks of this decline. Furthermore, perspective puts the observer of the work into the position of ultimate authority. David Hockney wittily referred to some of his landscape works as figurative paintings because the viewer becomes a figure in the landscape. He was right, and perspective in art inevitably tends to privilege the position of the observer as a special locus of interpretation.
In this sense even Renaissance art and its successors foreshadow the assumptions of post-structuralism and deconstructionism: that there are no pre-existing hierarchical arrangements in the world, merely socially organized ones, and that the work of art has no objective existence but is merely subject to fresh interrogation by each individual who encounters it. If you hate Tracy Emin, blame Brunelleschi.
A more radical response to the shallowness of contemporary art would be to advocate for a return to pre-Renaissance art forms, to iconography, illuminated manuscripts, and the like.
But the obvious flaw in such a return would be that those preceding art worlds came from a very different time and place to where we are today. In Traditional societies there was no clear sense of demarcation between art and craft, or between art and religion. The creation of an art work would have been an act of worship in itself. Perhaps the closest we have to such art today might be the creations of someone like Andy Goldsworthy, but even here the value of the art arises from the aesthetic and spiritual talents of the individual artist.
We do not live in a time when collective worship through shared iconography is a possibility. To long for a return to either Renaissance or pre-Renaissance art forms is misguided because the social conditions that gave rise to those art forms no longer exist. Art that tries to return to those forms will produce surface imitations that may be aesthetically pleasing but will fail to achieve the same sense of numinous expression because they will only communicate from individual to individual rather than arising from the shared experiences of a particular community.
So, at one level, the artistic revolution of the 20th century was entirely healthy and necessary. The post-impressionists and their successors recognized that the Pre-Raphaelites’ hopes had not been realized and that the world was plunging headlong into modernity. The artwork of the 20th century reflects the breakdown and fragmentation suffered by the individual, and posits fresh ways for the individual to come to terms with this sense of disintegration. But this is not sufficient; there needs to be a reintegration. Where contemporary art has been useful is as an antenna, receiving and transmitting the metaphysical chaos of a secular age. But it has failed to articulate anything resembling a genuine European ethos appropriate for modernity and post-modernity. Early attempts such as Futurism and Vorticism were rendered stillborn after 1945. (After 1945 there can be no European art, perhaps?)
Given this rather depressing situation, it seems to me reasonable to investigate some of the more meaningful occurrences in contemporary art and to ask whether there might be some latent residue of a Traditional perspective lurking beneath the often tawdry surface. My motivation here is backed up by a suspicion that post-modernism will inevitably undo itself; that, in a world where all values must be equalized, there is always the chance that values detrimental to the present system orthodoxy will be able to smuggle themselves into the Academy and into popular consciousness. And it is with these considerations in mind that I turn to the work of Damien Hirst.
Hirst’s primary medium is conceptualism, and he is probably the most famous and successful conceptual artist ever. The narrative of conceptual art tells us that when Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal in 1917, this allowed the art object to attain a degree of ontological autonomy that had never before been thought possible. Instead of art creating a representational or symbolic picture of the world, it now became possible for actual elements of the real world to enter into the field of art appreciation, thus challenging the hierarchy of aesthetic value judgement.
The point of such conceptualism is essentially twofold. Firstly, it asserts that the process of selection that had previously been a necessary prerequisite to the production of an artwork is redundant. The accepted symbolism and subject matter of Western art, so the argument goes, are part of a wider matrix of ideological oppression that seeks to assert a regressive sense of order and hierarchy, and to validate such notions. The task of the artist then is to undermine such systems of oppression by undermining the symbolic structures of Western discourse. So, a urinal becomes sculpture, as does the artist’s own shit as it sells for its weight in gold. A false alchemy of commercial and conceptual praxis replaces Western metaphysics.
Secondly, the locus of meaning retreats a step back in the process of artistic production. Whereas it had always before been axiomatic that the conceptualizing of the artwork is the prior stage to its execution in a particular craft context, it now becomes possible to formulate a particular concept in the mind and then present it in a more or less unadorned fashion. The “artistry” involved in the process has become less important as the artist’s own conceptualization of the object has become foregrounded.
The effect of this is that contemporary conceptual art en masse is badly formulated and badly executed. In theoretical terms it fails to achieve an objective correlative in two ways. 1. The subject matter of the artwork is badly chosen, it is precisely that which should be excluded from the artwork, or at least be subordinated to other dominant functions of the work. 2. There is no clear objective manifestation of that which is to be expressed. The signification of the work is not contained within itself but points back to the anterior formulation that inspired it; it points to the mind of the artist.
For many observers, these considerations alone are sufficient to condemn conceptual art entirely. The common sense view, that an unmade bed or a pile of bricks cannot possibly be considered genuine art, has a great deal of merit. But it cannot be denied that art praxis and theory during the 20th century developed a unique and telling language, a language that has become culturally dominant. For most of today’s critics who set the agenda for contemporary art, representational art has been superseded by photography, film and television, and the only practicing artists worthy of note are those who work with some form of conceptualism.
Within this critical milieu the figure of Damien Hirst looms large. Both an enfant terrible and a fêted celebrity, his work is simultaneously central and tangential to the focus of late 20th/early 21st century art appreciation. This dual aspect stems from the nature of the work itself which achieves a remarkable duplicity of intent: both sincere and removed at the same time. To a large degree, this bipolarity of intention is a reflection of Hirst’s core subject matter which consistently revolves around ideas of death; what, if anything, death means to the living, and how we should orientate ourselves towards death now that religion is deemed outmoded. Hirst presents these questions (and occasionally tentative answers) in stark and illuminating ways. The apparent coolness and lack of emotional engagement evident in his work marks it out as a wholly contemporary project, but the obsessive return to this rather metaphysical subject matter suggests that Hirst is less of a modern than he would necessarily admit.
Hirst’s early work consisted of Jeff Koons-style conceptual objects and are of little note. The turning point came at the beginning of the 1990s with A Thousand Years (1990), and was followed with some of his signature works, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), and Away from the Flock (1994).
A Thousand Years presents a cow’s head in a glass cube on which maggots feast, and from which they emerge as flies only to find that the cube also contains an insect-o-cutor which ends their brief lives. This is an artwork that attempts to present the entire life cycle, but in a repellent way. Blood from the severed head pools on the floor, as do the increasing number of dead flies. Watching this piece is a depressing and somewhat repugnant experience, but it does exert a grim fascination nonetheless. In its attempt to exhibit death as a stark fact it represents the beginning of Hirst’s mature style.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Away from the Flock are representative of the work that Hirst is best known for, namely dead animals floating in formaldehyde. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, or Dead Shark as it is often known, is a huge triptych of steel framed glass cubes, within which a dead shark floats, its fearsome jaw forever agape in a static parody of its former ferocity.
Away from the Flock consists of a dead lamb in formaldehyde, its title pointing towards religious symbolism. The lamb might have a personal resonance for Hirst, who is a former Catholic. It is also suggestive of pastoral art, but problematically so.
With all of these works we are invited to view death behind glass. Glass works to reveal what is behind it but it also acts as a barrier, and in this respect Hirst shares some of Francis Bacon’s ambivalence towards the art object. The framing device simultaneously acts as a window on the object, thus revealing it as though without mediation, and it also works to delineate the art object as a special category requiring a predisposed form of observation. Furthermore, considering the way in which Hirst frames his dead creatures so as to present a cold, taxonomic portrait of mortality, is it overstating things to suggest that these works were a sort of proto-critique of internet culture, wherein all of life is presented vicariously and pseudo-objectively on a screen?
Also of interest is a series of display cabinet works. One series of these works is the medicine cabinets which are literally medicine cabinets filled with packs and bottles of pharmaceuticals. These works hint at the medicalized approach to life that has eclipsed the religious. Hirst presents these drugs as though they were icons, and the clinical appearance of the medicine cabinets reminds us that an age of reason provides clarity rather than faith. But the exchange is problematic. Whereas religion offered the certainty of immortality, medicine now offers the possibility of increased longevity; a humbling trade-off. We believe in these drugs as a new form of Eucharistic sacrament and we swallow them whole, hoping that they will defer our meeting with our maker. As Hirst puts it, “in the world today everybody dies of cancer, if you avoid all the potholes that life throws up. And in a way God has become cancer or it starts to feel like that. . . . If God is to be found anywhere today why not there?”
Another strand of the display cabinet pieces variously features shells, fish, diamonds, and cigarette butts. All in different ways point towards death but also suggest more of the museum curator approach rather than that of the fine artist, and Hirst has noted that he would prefer art galleries to be more like the Natural History Museum. With these pieces there is a sense of the Victorian collector, of the self-confident taxonomist, who can discover the pre-existing order in the world; who can map out God’s plan.
Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding consists of a pair of display cabinets featuring an array of fish species. In the one cabinet the fish swim left, in the other, right. The only things that distinguish this work from an actual natural history display are the title and the fact that the fish are facing in different directions, which invites some degree of interpretation. The fish can’t make up their minds whether they are objective scientific artefacts or higher level artistic creations, so they swim in both directions at the same time, like Hirst.
These works potentially violate one of the laws of conceptualism: that reality does not consist of pre-existing categories of value and hierarchy. Hirst seems to enjoy the sense of taxonomy in these works rather than trying to subvert it.
More recently, in the first decade of the 21st century, Hirst executed a series of biopsy paintings. Each was a large scale work based on medical photographs of diseased cells. Each piece was titled after the original photograph’s digital name (<M132/770 Skin cancer, LM_SPL.jpg>, <M122/337 Cells of breast cancer, light_micrograph_SPL.jpg>, etc.) again combining his obsessions of classification and death.
The pieces are enlarged to a huge size so that the individual cells become monstrously large. Yet, at the same time, the bright coloration of these microscopic images gives them a vivid appeal, creating a sense of a psychedelic interior cosmos. When viewed closely, the pictures reveal razor blades, hooks and other objects which have been attached to the high resolution images. It is as though Hirst is captivated by the power of medical imaging to capture these extraordinary images of disease but he cannot allow the neutral gaze of the scientist to be dominant. The addition of various blades and other loaded imagery channels the viewer’s interpretation so that the aesthetically pleasant pictures are ruptured with a violent realization of their malignant intent; but more importantly, we are compelled to notice the metaphysical twist that the artist has added to these artifacts of the physical sciences. The omniscient eye of medicine is able to chart our bodies down to the cellular level and with this information forestall death. But it cannot defer death forever, and because death remains an inevitability it remains for Hirst-as-artist-as-priest to provide a stark exegesis of the terminal condition.
Beyond Postmodernism: Hirst as Metaphysical Artist
It is this attempt to smuggle metaphysical ideas into the discourse of postmodernism that marks Hirst’s work as significant and that distinguishes him from most of his contemporaries. It is a radical strategy for two reasons.
Firstly, because postmodernism does not allow for sincere, authentic expressions of feeling but instead insists upon a screen of irony or cynical detachment through which experience must be filtered, the presentation of ideas concerning death and its meaning disrupts the ruthlessly curated scope of contemporary discussion and posits an emotionally resonant subject matter at the heart of the work.
Secondly, the ontological status of the art object had previously been leveled by conceptualism in order to erase the hierarchical nature of Western culture. By utilizing the art object to evoke a contemplation of death, Hirst necessarily (even if perhaps inadvertently) points to an ultimate boundary, a locus of fundamental meaning. This reintroduces the concepts of hierarchy and value into contemporary art. Thus Hirst’s oeuvre has the effect of bringing sincerity and hierarchy back into the Western art tradition, whether or not this is his actual intention.
This aspect of Hirst’s work has been noted and is a cause for deep suspicion by some critics, particularly American ones who seek to uphold the theoretical foundations of conceptualism. According to this analysis Hirst’s work suffers from the allures of populism so that it conspires with a pre-existing system of signifiers to elaborate what are seen as mystical gestures. The aim of contemporary art, so the critique goes, is to draw attention to the existence of this network of signifiers and to undermine the hidden ideological assumptions that support it. In this way, the artist can subvert oppressive power structures even if doing so means the art work’s complicity in its own commodification. This perspective has been articulated by one critic who writes that Hirst’s work “consisted of a diluted variant of 1980s appropriation art. Anglicised and ontologised into aura-laden tableaux that dealt, not with the seriality or sign-value of the commodity, but with the timeless universals of the ‘human condition’. The regressive, conservative nature of his art was masked, however, by the coolness and slickness of its presentation, and by his own self-promotion.”
In this sense, Hirst’s work cannot easily be assimilated by the art world over which he reigns. It is only because the art world is concerned with fashion and celebrity, rather than with meaning, that the implications of Hirst’s work are not pursued. Hirst is fully aware of this, stating, “I’ve said you have to get people listening to you before you can change their minds. . . . You’ve got to become a celebrity before you can undermine it, and take it apart, and show people there’s no difference between celebrities and real life.” His work is replete with the ambiguity of this position to the point of bi-polarity. If he is, as he suggests, engaging in Faustian pact with celebrity culture, it is important to note that many of the ideas he brings to the table are frankly archaic in the best possible sense.
Is Damien Hirst a great artist? Before answering this question it would be worth remembering Coomaraswamy’s potent maxim: “The artist is not a special kind of man, every man is a special kind of artist.” Hirst is certainly not a great artist in the sense in which we understand Renaissance art to be great. He is instead a clever taxidermist, one full of ideas and obsessed with death. But this is not a demeaning judgment; he has a clear vision and he pursues it rigorously. At the present time, it is difficult to see beyond the post-modern assumptions that impel the movement of conceptual art, including the notion that the artist is a special mediator who acts as a secular priest. But Hirst’s tableaux do raise the interesting notion that these very assumptions can return to notions of classification, hierarchical order, death, and speculations concerning what might lie beyond it. When all things are rendered possible, it should be unsurprising if reality makes a reappearance.
1. Lasha Darkmoon, “The Plot Against Art,” The Occidental Observer, September 19, 2009, http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/authors/Darkmoon-ArtI.html
2. Ann Gallagher, ed., Damien Hirst (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), p. 216.
3. Damien Hirst, “Natural History,” Damien Hirst official website, http://www.damienhirst.com/texts1/series/nat-history
4. Robert Garnett, “Brit Pop and Popism,” http://www.john-russell.org/Reviews/BT1.pdf
5. Gallagher, Damien Hirst, p. 199.
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