I want to return now to Mark Granier's discussion at Lightbox following my original post on Damien Hirst.
Mark begins with a degree of qualified agreement, saying:
Hirst’s shark may have been startling once upon a time, though it has always seemed rather old hat to me, a sad little echo of Duchamp, Warhol, Beuys, 'International Yves Klein Blue'... Perhaps it is apt to compare it to Goya’s dog (or a demon from Bosch or Michelangelo) in terms of “psychological location” as “a process of reorientation within the world”, though I have my doubts. Certainly the dog and the demons (many of them fish-demons by the way) instill a strong sense of dislocation, and perhaps the shark does this too.
He acknowledges the value of confrontation, suggesting, however, that you can get confrontation in a waxwork museum as much as in an art gallery, which is true, and I myself have, in the past, written about the development, role and function of gallery space. There is indeed much that is questionable about the reverence due to gallery space - that is to say a dedicated, churchly space, often institutional or at least possessing, one way or another, a certain authority. There is much to question there, but I don't really doubt that it produces a specialised form of attention, in which context re-orientates object.
That doesn't, of course, guarantee that anything in gallery space is bound to be seen as art, let alone great art. It still leaves a lot for the object to do, as any trawl through an exhibition, where we we prefer one exhibit over another, will demonstrate. If gallery space were all, everything on exhibition would have equal value. But it doesn't. In other words, we respond as though value were not entirely determined by the context of conferred authority.
My quarrel was with the collusion between 'conferred authority' and cash investment.
Context, which includes 'conferred authority' and a great many other things, is an essential part of Mark's argument. He correctly points out that Goya's dog is part of a series of murals, not an independent object.
It is almost inevitable that we will read too much into such an image. We are approaching it post Beckett, with the existential floodlights blazing. What is remarkable to me is how much expression Goya (or whoever) was able to put into such a tiny profile, almost a silhouette: a dog’s dark head, its one (bewildered? terrified?) eye.
Yes, of course, that is true. It's just that we cannot help bringing our baggage - cultural, personal, political - to anything we are invited to contemplate.
What Goya's dog, as well as the demons pictured by Bosch, have in common, is:
..engagement with the human predicament. They are in it, along with us, up to their eyes. Far from merely being ironic/confrontational displacements or quasi-surreal gestures, they are, in their own contexts, utterly real. And a measure of this reality, this engagement, is something necessary to all works of art, minor, good or great.
And he goes on to say that he does not think Hirt's shark possess such reality.
What Hirst’s dead animal installations say to me, overwhelmingly, is: Look at the one that didn’t get away! Look at what I’ve imprisoned! Look at my acquisitions! Is it really likely that Hirst was challenged or confronted (much less scandalised) by whatever inspired his tanked shark? I strongly suspect that the idea of the shark, Hirst’s overwhelming desire to make a big splash, looms far larger than the thing’s mere physical presence, startling though this may be. It’s the audacity of it, the bigness and the brashness. And behind this is Hirst’s complacent voice, somewhat distracted, already moving the punters on to the next sensational exhibit.
Well, that may be true or it may not. That is in the realm of the subjective. That's just your opinion, man, to quote the Dude again. None of us can argue with what another finds to be 'overwhelmingly' so nor do I quarrel with Mark when he goes on to suspect something. I am generally in favour of suspecting. Suspecting is good.
I suspect all of that, but still find the shark, which I have seen - and I seem to remember Mark saying he had not - a powerful and proper confrontation, laced with irony, complete with a sort of sharkly, MacHeathian strut. Unlike Mark, I was persuaded on seeing it, that the confrontation was not only an ironic gesture directed at me and the cash register, but one the artist himself experienced, that is to say, quoting Mark, "an engagement with the human predicament." You cannot have an engagement with the human predicament unless you, the artist, are also a human being, engaging with said predicament.
Yes it is part freak show, part wax museum, part science lesson, part mortality fable and part dark humour. And there's even a touch of gravity there, a graveness experienced something like the still on top from The Werckmeister Harmonies - the Béla Tarr film from the novel I translated by László Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance.
Very like a whale...