>Contemporary Art: Memento Mori

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I have long been a fan of Simon Schama. His History of Britain is one of my favorite documentaries so I was pleased to learn that he would pack his Goyard suitcase and make to the journey down to Washington D.C. where he would be giving a lecture hosted by the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Gallery. The subject of the lecture was “The Beast in Contemporary Art.” Since I generally agree with Charles Rider that all modern art is bosh, this was an event that I couldn’t miss – especially since I had missed him at the National Book Festival last fall. Well, Mr. Schama was too clever by half (as usual) the matter in the talk turned out to be bestial not only in the William Golding sense of human nature, but quite literally as well.

He began with a discussion of the most damned piece of recent art, Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God [pictured above.] Schama read off its sins, concluding that it was “A kind of fetish object … created by a celebrity culture,” and cheekily suggested that perhaps Goldman Sachs should have bought it for its new building. In Mr. Hirst’s defense, Mr. Schama repeated Damien’s own line that “Modern art is full of nothing.”

“He likes to give out, does Damien, the affect of unkowning.”

After this we went on a whirlwind tour of the history of skulls as a symbol in Western art. “Instead of being empty-headed he might be over-stuck in the canon.” Next it was on to fetishism of a more fleecy nature when Schama compared the use of sheep by Hirst to its evolving role as a symbol over time. We first received the amusing anecdote of when in 1994 Bridger dumped a pail of black ink into a vat of formaldehyde in which Hirst has preserved a sheep, utterly blocking it out.

“I was in a carpe diem state of mind,” Bridger claimed adding that he was simply contributing “an addendum” to Mr. Hirst’s work since “the lamb had already made its statement.” Humorous yes, but there was real knowledge to be gained when Mr. Schama discussed the works of the preraphealites pointing out how they believed that the bold garishness of color and form in their art represented truth whereas the stifling line, appreciated by the untrained eye was the real lie. These works were purposefully painted this way, as a rejection of the materialistic mores of the time. They also loved using lambs, both as a symbol of sacrifice which evolved from the Christian symbolism but also as an image of Englishness and of the larger populace. Perhaps it is not coincidence that Ricardo’s own famous image is of English wool and Portuguese wine. Whereas the preraphealites were obsessive in the representation of their landscapes Hirst goes the direct opposite route, using the frame to seal off the subject from the viewer. The importance of the frame which thus allows only a partial connection between the work and the audience is as important to Hirst as it was to Bacon. From sheep we moved on to horses and the concern they represented with bloodlines and thus their appeal in Europe.

But what does it all mean? As we moved on the paintings shifted, becoming more brutal – from farmyard to the butcher and the inevitable decay that accompanies all life. Mr. Schama mentioned that we have seldom had a generation of artists when there wasn’t an urge to prevent decay and mortality. And this modern art does engage us with its brutality but it is unredeemed by any hope of salvation because the art of Mr. Hirst is basically materialistic. Contemporary artists all have some connection with our age of unrelenting atrocity, Schama states, but we are particularly cursed by the collapse of the dream of the humanitarian principle. Unlike ‘pop art’ the artists under discussion produce the sort of art which does make some attempt to engage us with brutality and slaughter. Chilling stuff, to be sure.

But there is some value here. In Schama’s interpretation “while much beastliness of contemporary art is averse to sententiousness,” it is not necessarily simply a reaction. When the artists do succeed they aim higher than simply another commentary on the brutishness of our times – their target is also art and the role it has played throughout history in the politics of power. Images such as the “roast beef” of Old England which was plump, virile, and wealthy are as common as the use of the lamb by England which was a self-consciously Christian empire. Hirst strips all this away and just shows the slaughter as purely materialistic and thus attacks the older artists themselves. This is, most certainly, an attack on traditional art, showing the world as drowning in the bloody slops of the abattoir.

It would be impossible in a lecture like this to escape the phrase: “post-modern irony,” and this is just how Schama describes the claim of those like Hist who say that they are fighting against art’s battle to deny decay and prevent putrefaction and so they claim that they put decay on the forefront. But Schama can’t help siding with the Rembrandts who painted their figures in all of their glory but also with hints of decay – the starkest evidence is use of butterflies who are there not just as a commentary on the brevity of life but of art itself. In the end, Schama believes that contemporary artists are not truly escaping anything but are busy supplying pieces with enormous back-baggage. “No generation has been more art-full.”

Just as one knows one will hear the phrase “post-modern irony” in any art lecture these days, one also knows that when one goes to a lecture by a British art historian who’s had his own series, one gets a discussion of Potter’s bull. Lo and behold:

So I definitely had a most enjoyable evening. Mr. Schama’s flaw as a lecturer is that he is perhaps too entertaining and he cannot be both appreciated and comprehended contemporaneously. Luckily the lecture is available for viewing online. I highly recommend it.

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