Hirst, Butterflies, and Why I Write About Art

There’s been a little ruffle of consternation about Damien Hirst’s recent retrospective at the Tate Modern lately. Reading about it has basically confirmed everything I have ever thought about why people need to be better informed about the arts.

The details, such as I can find them are this: The RSPCA is irate about Damien Hirst’s use of butterflies in his work In and Out of Love, because an estimated 9,000 of them died during the 23 weeks the show ran. That’s a lot, particularly considering there was a general idea that the butterflies were supposed to be self sustaining in the two galleries that housed them.

Now, I’d like to start with the fact that I don’t particularly condone Hirst’s use of live animals in his art. I’m fairly on the fence about how acceptable it is to use live animals in instillation art, and I tend to lean toward probably not acceptable. Still, I don’t think he was being wantonly cruel here. He chose species that were recommended to him for being able to thrive in the environment he created. He sourced them ethically. The fact that a lot of them were dying probably should have raised some red flags, but this still doesn’t seem like a case of heinous mistreatment to me.

But while the ethics of Damien Hirst’s use of animals in his art is a worthy discussion topic, it’s not really what got my wheels spinning about this whole affair. It’s the way the whole thing has been written up in the press. Let me sum up the ten or so articles I read, trying to find out more about this kerfufle:

  • Articles I read before I found one that was written by someone who had actually been to the exhibit: Four
  • Total number of articles that seemed to be written by someone with more than a quick Wikipedia level knowledge of Hirst’s work: Two (this is counting the one by the person who went to see the show)
  • Number of articles with titles that made it sound like Hirst was deliberately killing butterflies (“Hirst Kills Butterflies” or similar): Five
  • Number of articles that described the exhibit, beyond saying it had a crap ton of butterflies in it: Three
  • Number of articles that mentioned Hirst’s works that involved live flies (many of which presumably died while on display): Zero

I suppose that this could all be pinned on lazy, sensationalist journalism, or even just the stress of getting articles out in a timely fashion. Maybe you don’t have a staff writer who likes to go to art exhibits. Maybe you are on the far side of the world but still for some reason feel compelled to write about a Tate Modern exhibit. Fair ’nuff I suppose. No. It pisses me off to high hell, but it seems Quixotic to tilt that windmill. Then I did something I probably should have known better than to do. I read the comments.

Yes, yes, I know. I shouldn’t take comments sections to heart, but I kept seeing some common themes that I hear in my daily life all the time. They get under my skin and bother me, so I’m gonna clear the air a little here. In no particular order, I give you things I wish people would quit saying about art, and the sorts of responses that I want to give these people that led me to write an art column:

“His work lost meaning when he did it for money.”

HAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh hang on a moment here. Let me catch my breath. HAAAAA! Oh man.

Look, we’ve all seen some talentless schlock turned out for a paycheck, but working for a commission does not inherently devalue the artistic merit of anything. I mean, do you live in magical fairy land where artists don’t need to eat? Am I going to shatter your world view by telling you that, without the hefty commission payment, Michelangelo would have never painted the Sistine Chapel? He hated painting. The Pope paying him was the only reason he did it. Some artists also happen to be good at making money. Hirst is one of them. This does not make him an inherently bad artist.

“This modern ‘art’ is all rubbish”

What do you have against the art of 60 years ago, and why is that relevant to the topic at hand?

“He isn’t a craftsman, ergo he cannot be an artist.”

I haven’t gone too far into concept art, I know, but I touched on the idea a little when I covered Dada. Concept art is a thing, everyone. It’s not even a very new thing. It is legitimate to create art that works best as an idea sparked inside a viewer’s head. Getting people to respond to your work as art is what it takes to be considered art. Get it in a gallery, get people looking at it from an art point of view, and, lo, art is happening. See also: Works designed by a master artist, with a great deal of execution being left to apprentices, are not new.

“So called ‘Art’.” or “He’s a good designer, but not an artist.”

You are not the arbiter of art. No one is the arbiter of art. Art does not cease being art because you don’t like it. Art does not cease being art just because you don’t think it is good art. You can think Damien Hirst makes the crappiest crap that ever craped. It would still be art. Sorry kids, but you can not decide this. And why, for the love of all that is good, would you want to? Do you really want to set up some governing board that can go around mandating a select pile of things into art while everything else is officially not art? ‘Splain me how that is beneficial. A lot of people, and not just trust fund snobs with some burning need to get an expensive canvas covered in dots, are able to resonate with Hirst’s work. Art is and will be. It does not require your approval.

And the designer comment. Ugh. I swear that is the new, “Your work is very illustrative.” Piss. Off. Go get stuffed with your big angry distinctions between high and low brow, and your monkeying about with vocabulary to try and shut out work you don’t like or that doesn’t meet your lofty standards.

And finally…

“These idiots wouldn’t know a Renoir if it hit them upside the head.”

Oh, you like old dead dude art? Me too. I love me some old dead dude art. You wanna know why artists now don’t paint like the old dead dudes did? They aren’t old dead dudes, that’s why. Renoir painted like Renoir because that was the big exciting new way to paint in the 1870s. By now it’s old hat. If I made a Renoir-like painting, I would be rightly accused of being derivative and unoriginal. Artists have to make new things. They have to push boundaries. That means inventing new processes and finding new aesthetic values. When Renoir was painting, people lamented that he didn’t paint more like the old dead dudes they were comfortable with. Free your head a little on this, would you?

Look, I’m not saying you have to like any given artist. You don’t. I am, at best, lukewarm about Hirst. I think he’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of quality. But, please for the love of my sanity, can we start talking about art like intelligent people? Can we stop treating our own opinions like they are the determining point of the universe? Are there valid criticisms to be lobbied against the art world? Yes. But these are not them. And this is why I write about art. To bring a little order to my corner of the universe.

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Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

7 thoughts on “Hirst, Butterflies, and Why I Write About Art”

  1. I’m glad I read this. The only thing I’ve seen about it was a reblog on Tumblr – a picture of Damien Hirst in front of a painting of what appeared to be thousands of butterflies, with a heading along the lines of ‘butterflies killed to make art.’ The whole thing made me think he used actual butterflies in the painting. I couldn’t bring myself to read the story with that impression in mind.

    So I guess the take away for this is I’m too squeamish, and the media is really skewing this one.

    1. Actually he has used butterfly wings in his art before (the canvas probably was real butterflies). He’s used all sorts of dead stuff. Mortalitity is a frequent theme in his art and he tackles it with regular head nods to he Victorians and their odd habits of collecting and displaying dead things (like butterfly collecting). However the ethics of that are the same ethics as leather and meat.

      The complaint has been lobbed at a work which was an instilation of live butterflies. There were boards with the cocoons pinned to them and as the butterflies hatched they would fly around the gallery where there were bowls of fruit and sugar water for them to feed on. Inadvertently guests were injuring and killing them (accidentally stepping on them ect.), but it sounds like most were dying of natural causes. One of the species chosen has a long adult lifespan, but others live only a few weeks. At any rate, they were droping off kind of fast, and did need to be replaced with a somewhat higher frequency than seemed 100% above board, but nothing I’ve read has lead me to believe that either Hirst himself or the Tate Modern were being heinously neglagent to the bugs.

      1. I like the idea of using dead things to make art. The tone I got was a much more … malicious, maybe? Like he was wantonly destroying thousands of helpless butterflies just to make art, rather than utilizing something that otherwise would disappear.

        Although even if he is actively killing insects to make art the meat/leather point sheds a different light on it. I can’t bitch too much about one when I’m a hearty supporter of the other two.

        The gallery aspect I see really nothing wrong with, and think it’s a rather cool idea as well (see now I’m going to have to go look up more of his stuff).

        1. This is the one article that I thought touched on the ethics issue without being stupidly inflammatory about it (and it was, tellingly, written before the RSPCA put out their press release).

          http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/apr/18/damien-hirst-butterflies-weirdly-uplifting

          And for serious art opinions about the exhibit as a whole try and find some of the articles written by the journalists who covered the opening of the show.

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