What Having Ideas For Artists Can Teach Us About Their Art

Hirst had a magic touch in the early 1990’s, his work was compelling and original, after a dry spell in the late 1990s when he vowed not to make any further animal vitrines and was lost for new ideas, Hirst went into overdrive with an army of assistants churning out riffs on his limited innovations. He also moved into bronzes and photorealist painting produced by assistants and made his own appalling sub-Bacon paintings in what must be the worst career decision by an artist ever.

Don’t get me wrong, he was great but he hasn’t done anything good since 1996. So I thought I’d chip in and offer some ideas.

Here are some ideas (more to follow), if you’re reading Damien, you can use them if you like:

Three-dimensional spot ‘paintings’:
Imagine pristine spheres of colour embedded in glass sheets making up boxes, angled or straight panes of glass and so on. They would fuse two tragectories of Hirst’s ouevre and simultaniously reconnect him with the minimalist tradition in a less superficial way than his previous work. Hirst has already shown interest in blending painting with his vitrine sculpture with his interpretations of Bacon’s work using sheep.

Formaldahyde Donkey:
Hirst’s “religious” work is ridiculous shlock. It’s just the gory bits of the bible inflicted on various farmyard fodder. Forget the Baroque obsession with gore: one of the most supremely potent symbols in the bible is the humble Donkey, which carried the infant Christ to Bethlehem and Egypt and on which he rode in glory through the East Gate of Jerusalem. The messiah on the Donkey was a prophesy of Zechariah because the donkey was a symbol of peace and work, not war and destruction that the horse would symbolise at the time. The humble donkey (dead from natural causes of course!), a symbol of poverty, peace and love would be the perfect Hirst religious work – an antidote to the schlock and bling of his rubbish mid-career work.

What A Squirrel And An Autofocus Camera Can Teach Us About Humour

Melissa Brandts and her husband were hiking in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada and decided take a shot of themselves with their backs to a spectacular scene of Lake Minnewanka. As the camera autofocussed, a curious squirrel popped up to inspect the source of the whirring noise. The camera automatically focussed on the squirrel and shot it, leaving an amused couple out of focus.

This image circulated the globe as a light relief news item, it made a lot of people smile, if not laugh. But why? Why is it funny?

This question can’t be answered. But we can at least speculate a little on the many reasons in this case. For me, the reasons are based on an uneasiness. In order to explain why, let me get a better handle on the image itself. The image has a random sophistication and reminds me of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The squirrel is practically in the centre of the image in the foreground, to the right of the vertical squirrel sit a blurred-out couple and in the distance our idylic mountain/lake scene. The other ‘player’ in this situation is the camera which has autonomously focussed and shot the image having been set to do so. The image is an intersection of culture, nature and technology (which I regard as outside of the culture/nature dichotomy – maybe I’ll post on that at a later date).

The squirrel ‘pops’ in the image in a posed yet uncomposed way – i.e. imposing. The couple seem marginalised by the very presence of the squirrel, and they are: not are they just visually pushed to one side by the presence of the squirrel, they are also of course blurred out by the nearer proximity of the squirrel to the camera, which took the squirrel in its blind reason to be the subject of the image it was about to capture. The human, then, has been marginalised by the interplay of an animal and a machine.

This explains what I mean by uneasiness. Comedy is often described as the space between our ambitions and actual achievements. The couple set out to picture themselves in a beautiful scene, perhaps as a momento with a little vanity. The unthinking actions of the squirrel and the camera (and I mean ‘unthinking’ literally – they do not think), is the rude eruption of machine and nature not conforming to the control we try to impose on them and doing so in an uncannily human way. It’s as if the beautiful scene has revolted against its captors.


The infinitely quotable Andy Warhol, said something along the lines of “in the future, department stores will become art galleries and art galleries will become department stores”. Now, I could affirm this quote from a variety of oblique angles – the blurring of the boundary between the museum and the commercial art world, for example.

But the point is this: the way we actually look at, and experience art is increasingly becoming commercialised. Department stores, advertisements and shop displays are a form of entertainment; they give us fantasies of identification. Why do Louis Vuitton spend so much on advertising in say, the left-of-centre Guardian? Most Guardian readers could not afford the Vuitton items advertised, and many would object to ostentatious luxury items as vulgar. But these advertisements are the engine of fantasy – they bear unreachable fruits of aspiration, and we consume our souvenirs of these fantasies in the perfumes and purses: auxiliary items to the cashmere coats and £1000 dresses. Advertisements don’t just valorise the commodities they represent. As a whole, they partly structure our sensibilities, our aspirations, they join us together through our shared desire.

Art galleries are becoming subsumed into this ecosystem of fantasy as we, the public, consume culture to feel closer to the art jet set, or to intellectual and ethical sophistication. As such, mega galleries like Tate Modern are the beacons of a kind of ‘Culturetainment’, bending to consumer demands for auxiliary goods and experiences which shore up the Olympian palace of impossible fantasy that the rich are perceived to inhabit (and making them richer since their investments in the actual art are endorsed – venerated even – by public lust). The public in this mode of culturetainment aren’t interested in being educated about what these things really mean or how difficult they can really be, but rather settle for glib psychobiography, difficulty for the sake of difficulty and genealogical conjecture.

Public participation and adulation is another aspect of this new way of seeing and this is where the Tate Modern really comes in – its gigantic works in the Turbine Hall often have a participatory element. Ólafur Elíasson‘s The Weather Project (above) and Carsten Höller‘s Test Site involved some audience participation as a spectacle. This has the double effect of letting the audience feel involved in the fantasy while further crystallising it in its unattainability. I guess this idea is related somewhat to the central idea in Robert Hughes’s award-winning documentary The Mona Lisa Curse which takes a look at post-war art from the intriguing standpoint of the Mona Lisa’s visit to the USA in the 1960’s – art becomes a fetish (in the original religious sense of the word), and one that depends on the public and media’s participation. Unlike Hughes, however, I’m no doom and gloom monger, and I’m certainly not a curmudgeon decrying all contemporary art, there is still lots of great and deservedly lauded work out there.

Art galleries have become department stores, not principally because of the way they display works, but because of how we look at the works: we see works of art as parts of a greater whole – not the history of art, but the intricate chain of images that shape our aspirations. We need to change our own ways of seeing to get the most out of our culture.

Well Being vs. Health Care

When I write ‘well being’ here I mean ‘well’ in both senses of the word: ‘to be well (healthy)’ and ‘well (good) be-ing’.

During the course of my PhD, I studied AIDS activism a great deal and was greatly inspired by the way those effected directly and indirectly by HIV/AIDS took it upon themselves to gain expertise and control, to puncture holes in the scientific establishment and lobby for the expeditious and non-profit driven release of drugs. The activists also educated and informed with their expertise, helping people understand sexual health and take control of their bodies, and I mean not only bodies per se but their bodies in public space, sexual health, you see, in enmeshed in our sociability.

The radical example of AIDS activists has led me to understand that a good society is one where people have the fullest possible understanding of their bodies and health, I believe our understanding has been impeded by advertising. The advertising of cheap and nasty food and drink – especially to children – is as much an anathema to me as the advertising cigarettes. A good understanding of health is also crucial to the well-being of our societies, health care is becoming ever more expensive as people live longer artificially through the management of chronic bad health. We really need to get beyond this miserable state of affairs, with a better understanding of our bodies and nutrition people can live more fulfilling and positive lives and, above all, feel happier; whats more “healthcare” can be given its true place as care for those with congenital and accidental illness, not those who have decimated their own well-being through indulgence or ignorance. To employ a term commonly used in welfare discourse, healthcare should be a ‘safety net’ for citizens. We shouldn’t depend on healthcare professionals to work for us, but rather work with healthcare professionals in order to maintain happy and healthy lives, and of course, less traumatic deaths.