A thing is not beautiful because it is beautiful, it is beautiful because one likes it.
And that may very well be true. We’ve arrived at a time where art comes in form of a dead shark disintegrating in formaldehyde…
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
…lights that go on and off every five seconds in an empty room
Work No. 227, the lights going on and off
…and an unmade bed littered with cigarette stubs and used condoms on its side.
While you might wrinkle your nose in distaste, these artists have been nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize at one point in their lives and have made critically acclaimed works in the last two decades.
You might wonder, do artists these days just have a tendency to out-shock and out-mortify one another, that contemporary works no longer exude a quiet beauty about them? Art school grads are equipped with knowledge to better understand conceptual works like these, but are prone to knowing too much to fully appreciate them. What about the man on the street?
Upon confronting Hirst’s piece – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, an average person might experience a wave of disgust, followed by shock and then a burning curiosity. Unless you’re a marine biologist or an avid diver, chances are, you will not ever see a shark, albeit a dead one, at such proximity. Its lifeless body, injected by formaldehyde for preservation, is suspended in a giant tank; its sheer size is overwhelming. The shark, is no longer a silent stalker waiting to maul unwitting seals, but has risen to the status of art.
But is it beautiful? Not in the most natural sense. His work doesn’t evoke a sense of calamity as compared to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies – which easily captivates emotions.
Wikipedia says, “An ‘ideal beauty’ is an entity which is admired, or possesses features widely attributed to beauty in a particular culture, for perfection.” Art can be beautiful, but can it be perfect?
Now, art should never subscribe to perfection. It takes the fun of appreciating art itself. It’s the niggling flaws that may annoy but similarly rouse intrigue and questioning.
When New York Times reviewed this particular work by Hirst, it was quoted:
“Mr. Hirst often aims to fry the mind (and misses more than he hits), but he does so by setting up direct, often visceral experiences, of which the shark remains the most outstanding. In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form.”
If you can’t put a finger as to whether the quote was a compliment, you’re not alone. Perhaps Hirst wasn’t hoping for one. The shark is the only object your eye sees and it’s that impact, no matter how horrifying, Hirst hoped to achieve. I suppose he wasn’t out to make a viewer go, “Awww, how lovely”, but to use art to shake the senses.
Sticking a picture of Tracey Emin’s art work in this blog post is probably biasedness on my part. During my time in art school, I was fascinated by her work. Perhaps it was the matters she dealt with – love, trauma, emotions, identity and sexual intimacy – that I could relate to in some shape or form.
Crude and strangely feminine at the same time, her works are a commentary of her life and relationships. Her sketches of the female body are not the most anatomically correct; its lines are almost child-like – scratchy and aching with emotion. But you ask, what worth is there in a work that looked all of five minutes to produce?
For me, it’s the hastiness which speaks to me the most. I am awed by what a mere few lines can convey – the jagged strokes, the drippy streaks. Legs splayed open, what a grotesque portrayal of a woman, you say. But does this drawing also seem a little more human since many paintings of old immortalise beautful woman on canvas? May imperfection have a chance to be exalted to such a status?
While others may lament on the rawness of Emin’s sketches, her works grow on me and I find her wonky, flawed drawings; beautiful. And perhaps, “A thing is not beautiful because it is beautiful, it is beautiful because one likes it” stands true.
Some art works may speak to you, others may sing. What melody is it for you?