Damien Hirst’s Shark
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City
On permanent view through October 2010
Like many people, I was curious to see the Shark, the sculpture by Damien Hirst, the leader and originator of the movement known as the Young British Artists, or YBA’s. The British seem to like naming emerging groups of style-setters with three-word acronyms. Previous examples include the Bright Young Things, a partying smart set from the 1920’s. Included among them was the eminent writer Evelyn Waugh.
The YBA’s, particularly Hirst, are all known to party just as hard, but unlike the sometimes feigned upper-class BYT’s the YBA’s transcend their mostly middle or working class roots by being ‘Sensation’ artists, borrowing from how rock stars did it in England in the sixties, and following the artist-as-rock-star tenor of the eighties. This is all very old news to anyone that has been paying attention.
The YBA’s contribution came in how they were able to enlist England’s partially unwitting and the partially all-too-willing tabloid newspapers to give them publicity, and for Charles Saatchi, owner of world’s largest advertising agency and a huge collection of art, to begin buying them. Hirst continues to generate reports of profligate spending and outrage, most recently with his diamond-studded skull that has a price tag of $100 million.
The Shark, its official title, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, a 13-foot tiger shark in a glass tank of mouthwash-green formaldehyde, dates originally from 1991. The three connected cases that contain it reference minimalism and American post-modernism–Donald Judd by way of Jeff Koons–and its theme comes from 19th century notions of the sublime, an idea supplemented by a wall label essay and a few related paintings from the Met’s collection, including a Francis Bacon and a Winslow Homer.
I was surprised at how wrinkly the shark was, even though it’s a new one, refurbished with a better preservative that the original, the press release states. I don’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I suspect it is over the idea that this is art. Hirst seems to play to the peanut gallery, the broadest audience, those who think of art as hallowed, more so because they don’t understand it. The YBA’s slogan is “Art for All”.
I was reminded of the scene in Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ when the character Anthony Blanche comes upon Charles Ryder’s London exhibition, when Ryder asks him how bad it is, Blanche drops his voice and says, “my dear, let us not impose your imposture upon these good plain people…we know, you and I, that this is all t-t-terrible t-t-tripe.”
They go to what Charles refers to later as a ‘pansy’ bar and Blanche continues, “I found, my dear, a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he used to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers.”