Wednesday, 17 September 2008
Confrontation: apropos Damien
There's an interesting comment by Mark on my recent post about Hirst, in which he quotes Robert Hughes.
I don't fully concur with Hughes. I have seen Hirst's shark and could understand its power as physical presence, not as aura. Of course it is, as Hughes says, a decaying marine organism but the confrontation with it is something different. It is startling and, while far from 'sweet' (see Radford's goal), it does hit one - like a demon in Bosch, or even Michelangelo. Or the dog in Goya, as above.
I am not comparing the shark to Goya - and the rest - in terms of value but in terms of psychological location. Not that Goya's remarkable painting is anywhere near his greatest work. It is not vision realised in ghostly, sinuous, transcendental paint, in paint as paint, which is what he could do at his best, no, it is rather, stripped down vision and confrontation. A kind of potent bareness. It is not all art has to offer but it is one of the experiences it offers. Hirst's shark is a similar kind of confrontation.
Confrontation is, I think, a proper area for art. There is a process of reorientation within the world that is the natural product of all substantial art. It is like the discovery of a room in the soul that did not exist before and from whose windows everything looks different. That view - that difference - is something you have, thenceforth, to take into account. It can be 'sweet' as well as 'shocking'. You can be confronted with delight and profusion as much as with horror and vacancy. Currently we trust horror and vacancy rather more than sweetness.
There is a catch to the idea of confrontation though. Confrontation as convention - the frayed and boring formula of the artist "challenging" the viewer - is so much rubbish unless the artist himself or herself is equally confronted and challenged.
Young artists are constantly told they have to "challenge" the viewer. Who tells them this? Their teachers, their funders, the stuff they are given to read. Challenge is insitutionalised to the point of meaninglessness. "I am being a good student. I am scandalising." No you're not, you are just being a conventional didactic bore.
You can't challenge from a position of superiority, in didactic fashion. That old call to the artist - épater le bourgeois! - is pointless unless the artist too is scandalised. The 'bourgeois' is so used by now to being "challenged" that he finds it cosy. You don't confront or challenge a dog by feeding it.
Hirst's first works were genuinely confrontational, not through aura, through what one knew, was told, or expected of them, but because they acted that way as physical objects. But you can't keep doing that in the same way. Not all the irony in the world can bring about that reorientation. What you have left to play with is aura. Aura and money. And so you carry on making the two the same thing till you can no longer tell the difference between them.