August 26, 2019

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  • Hirst and bad vs. poor taste

    Damien Hirst's “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” continues to test our sentiments about death and mortality.


    Cairo: London’s Tate Modern museum is currently holding a retrospective exhibition of works by Damien Hirst, the notorious l’enfant terrible of the Young British Artist’s movement. As one of the most controversial artists today, Hirst has managed to attract as many devoted followers as ardent detractors.

    The retrospective ranges from the awe-inspiring to the downright pretentious, but it all revels in unadulterated bad taste. To discuss the works of Hirst is to see and read extensively about the artist, so mentioning just a few of his pieces will never fully express his strengths and weaknesses. Since however, this is a retrospective, I feel compelled to mention the highlights that have managed to make Hirst the celebrity he is today.

    In the center of the exhibition is Hirst’s infamously celebrated shark from 1991. A huge tiger shark is suspended in a steel and glass box full of 5 percent formaldehyde solution, floating menacingly with jaws wide open in a frozen attack. Despite the repeated use of this image in the last two decades, the work has not yet lost its bite.

    Titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” the work continues to test our sentiments about death and mortality. Hirst has always been obsessed with death, and a large chunk of his career presents us with pieces that feature dead animals suspended in formaldehyde solution (cows, pigeons, horses), many of them split in half so that viewers can see their guts in cross-section.

    Other pieces include his butterfly paintings, and a personal favorite, his fly paintings, where real butterflies and flies land on painted surfaces and die. The butterfly pieces are simply pretty — imagine a handful of butterflies placed randomly on a support in a primary color. The Hirst effect is the realization that these butterflies are literally dead, stuck on the painted surface of the canvas. The fly paintings are otherworldly, and showcase his particular talent for titling his work.

    Large circular supports are covered in what would be glue-like substance and left to be completely covered in flies. The end result is overwhelming: a huge, shocking sculpture of an impossibly black and heavily textured surface, which on closer inspection appears to be a battlefield of flies. The pieces have titles like “Typhoid,” “Genocide,” “Holocaust,” “Aids” and, my favorite, “Night Falls Fast.”

    Hirst’s other works include installations of medicine cabinets, surgery utensils, large framed and meticulously organized pills and cigarettes (not in the same piece) on mirrored shelves, and his later, more repetitive theme: spot paintings. Note that Hirst doesn’t paint his own paintings, and largely doesn’t physically do his own work either. Neither did Andy Warhol, so that doesn’t make him any less of an artist in this day and age. However, there is a tremendous backlash against Hirst, ranging from his misuse of animals and his employment of bad taste in his work to the pretentiousness with which he prices some of his most obnoxious creations.

    This leads to the most successful aspect of Hirst’s work: his endlessly inventive approach to medium and exquisite presentation skills. How he manages to present what is ultimately a dead carcass of a large mammal or fish, or the mass grave of flies is simple and beautiful. Not only does it provide us with a whole new approach to aesthetics, but allows us to discuss his actual concepts rather than focus on how it was done.

    There’s a decidedly sterile and medical approach to almost all his work which reduces the discussion on technicalities, and throws us head first into the concepts behind the pieces. Perhaps I’m biased as I genuinely like most of his work, but I’m always impressed because it is this particular aspect that we manage to get so terribly wrong in Egypt.

    Cairo boasts an abundance of young artists with good intentions, good skills, a few good ideas and a lot of enthusiasm, but sadly with an arsenal of excuses. Many mistake my harsh criticism of some of the up and coming artists’ work as a personal preference for good taste versus bad, whereas for any contemporary art critic, that cannot at all be the case. To quote Jonathan Jones, the resident art critic in the UK’s Guardian: “There is nothing worse than good taste. Nothing more stultifying than an array of consumer choices paraded as a philosophy of life. And there is nothing more absurd than someone who aspires to show good taste in contemporary art.”

    Art made in a riotous spirit of bad taste not only undermines academic notions of correctness and stability, but it also renders itself virtually impervious to criticism, arming itself against attacks of any paradigm by gleefully confessing to its own intentionally questionable approach. However, I draw a further distinction between bad taste and poor taste, the latter signaling the artist’s inability to create what they intend to express and so settles for what can mask those shortcomings. For example, if one can’t draw the figure envisioned, one opts for abstraction. A trained eye can see the difference, and the discussion will never be about what the artist had intended but rather, their technique.

    Bad taste is essentially the essence of modern art as we know it. It was due to the rejection of the academic notions of accepted art that impressionism arose, leading the way to modern and contemporary art as we know it today. However, the key is the intention. Many an aspiring artist in Egypt today creates a work that is simply bad — not in bad taste — and hopes to be controversial.

    There is a difference between a badly painted image and an image painted in bad taste — though there’s never really a way of proving it. Most of our young artists today display a swift availability of excuses behind every criticism (time constraints, lack of resources, bad language skills, uncooperative framer/gallery/pc). Yet all these are equivalent to “the dog ate my homework.” If the work isn’t flawless in all its flaws then it’s not worth seeing — straight and simple.

    To put it in the words of the internationally renowned art dealer Michael Findlay; “What many people who spend a lot of time looking at art do agree on is what separates a successful work of art from one that may be barely interesting or typical. Mastery of the medium, clarity of execution and authority of expression are the vital criteria applicable to all works of art, regardless of style or subject.”

    To bring this back to the Damien Hirst retrospective, the beauty of his work lies in its controversial flaws. Despite his more obnoxiously priced pieces that heavily bank on some of today’s ‘designer’ approach to art collection, a large number of his pieces brilliantly explore the fragility of life, beauty, fame and art itself.

    If there isn’t a chance to see the show live in London before it ends on September 9, then be sure to look up the work to get further acquainted with the most controversial of all modern artists. –The Egypt Monocle

    One Response to “Hirst and bad vs. poor taste”
    1. Monira Al Qadiri says:

      In order to produce high quality “flawless” works as Hirst’s ( whose work I hardly qualify as “good”), unfortunately there does have to be a strong local system of art production that supports and embraces them. This includes an art market or funding from an institution of some sort in order to realize such ambitious projects & support the artist himself (in the case of YBA, Saatchi & co initially started that), abundance of high-end spaces such as contemporary art museums and galleries to exhibit such pieces (I don’t see Egypt overflowing with those just yet), and some kind of art education – in Hirst’s case Goldsmiths.

      I think its totally unrealistic to expect young budding Egyptian artists to aspire to that level of grandeur in the societal and living constraints that they face, and within a very young contemporary art scene such as Egypt’s.
      Give them some time and space to make mistakes and find the optimal solutions for themselves instead of expecting of them to suddenly become Hirst.

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