Damien Hirst's Sheep. Reflecting on the meaning of art

Stirring up no end of controversy is Damien Hirst's sheep display in Arezzo for Icastica. Is it about art? Let's try to reason about it....

A huge stir has been caused by the news that Englishman Damien Hirst will exhibit one of his sheep in formaldehyde at Icastica, an exhibition to be held in Arezzo in a couple of weeks. Mind you, the operation of Hirst, who is used to putting dead animals under display cases filled with formaldehyde, is by no means new. Hirst has been accustoming the public to such works for years now. However, despite the non-newness of the operation, Hirst continues to stir up controversy: our Facebook post with which we relaunched the news yesterday garnered nearly three hundred comments, divided between the outraged, the indifferent, those who consider Hirst a genius and those who consider him a waffler.

Beyond personal judgments, these operations actually help to reflect on the meaning of art. Beginning with how a work should be evaluated so that it can not only be called art, but become part of art history itself. Hirst is not an innovative artist: he follows a strand, that ofconceptual art, of which he is but one of the latest exponents. From Piero Manzoni onward (although Manzoni is not strictly framed as a conceptual artist, although he was an anticipator of such trends) provocation has been one of the aspects that have characterized much of conceptual art. If you will, Hirst’s sheep would already have been an outdated work of art in 1973, because the year before Gino de Dominicis “exhibited” at the Venice Biennale a boy with Down’s syndrome who observed, seated, some of the works (and, by the way: today only contemporary art enthusiasts probably remember De Dominicis, even though it is only forty-two years since the event and sixteen years since the artist’s death). This is also why the comparison, advanced by many, between artists like Hirst and Cattelan to others like Caravaggio and Monet seems senseless: many place them on the same level. However, one of the characteristics that distinguishes genius from those who are not geniuses (as obnoxious and commercial as the term “genius” is, but given its wide use, it is not possible not to address the topic), is preciselyoriginality: that is why Caravaggio and Monet were geniuses. Because they were the first to invent a language and to break certain patterns. Duchamp was a genius, whether we like his art or not, because he was perhaps the artist who demonstrated, with a work that sparked endless controversy (and continues to do so a hundred years later), one of the assumptions on which art is based, namely theoriginality of the idea.

Alongside these there is also a larger array of artists who have gone down in art history because they were able to rework the achievements of the great masters by adapting them or fusing them with different suggestions to create their own way. And in this sense the names are wasted. Can today’s conceptual artists fall into this category? To what extent can provocation be defined as art? It might be interesting to introduce an additional element of reflection, that of the message of the work. What perhaps distinguishes an artist from a good marketer (after all, there is a large part of marketing that is based precisely on provocation that aims to get people talking about a product in order to make it acquire value) is the ability to succeed in making the provocation serve to stimulate a reflection on a content, on a message, rather than on the provocation itself and its form. Almost no one questions the message of the works of Hirst, Cattelan, Vanessa Beecroft or similar figures, precisely because of the fact that provocation taken to the extreme takes over any content and generates debate not about substance but about form. Could this also be an art form? Probably. But then if this is the assumption, the publicists who invented the image of Michelangelo’s David armed with a rifle are also artists. It is the same Duchamp who taught, contrary to what may appear, that it is not enough to take any object and call it a “work of art” to create, precisely, a work of art. Otherwise we would all be artists. There are those who say that when Hirst, Cattelan or others stir up a lot of controversy, these characters achieve their goal. And we play into their hands. But the question is, what is their purpose? And what is their game? To get people talking about themselves, probably, since they hardly talk about the meaning of the works. And so, if the purpose of their operations is to get people talking about them, what is the line between art and marketing?

There is then a further point to ponder. In his essay (in dialogue form) The critic as artist, Oscar Wilde attributed to the art critic a creative capacity superior to that of the artist himself. A message as relevant as ever: just think of how Transavanguardia was born, a movement created practically on the drawing board in the 1980s by one of the most influential critics of the time (and now), Achille Bonito Oliva. So much so that often the real protagonist of Transavanguardia, which largely brings together artists without actually any artistic training, is considered the art critic who started the movement. A movement that, without its cumbersome art critic, would probably never have even existed. For today’s artists, the argument does not change: they are hailed and promoted by critics, and without the critics, perhaps they would not even exist. What Wilde was talking about in the late 19th century is still an everyday reality today, and critics today probably have far more power than art. History, however, has shown us how criticism and art history do not go hand in hand. Just think of Lorenzo Lotto, who was forced at the end of his career to retire to a convent because he did not have enough to live on, since his art was not understood and the artist always had to work in peripheral centers, sometimes failing to earn enough for a decent livelihood. Today, however, Lorenzo Lotto is recognized as one of the greatest names in art history.

Finally, a notation of a more “practical” nature, if I may use the adjective. Arezzo has a splendid Museum of Medieval and Modern Art, totally undervalued (it does not even have its own website!), and yet rich in important works by great local and non-local artists (among local artists alone we could mention Luca Signorelli, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Giorgio Vasari). The last noteworthy exhibition, of those organized in its premises, is perhaps the major exhibition on Piero della Francesca in 2007, which we at Windows on Art had also visited (although the site would be born only two years later). It was one of the best exhibitions of the last ten years, and could have been a springboard to launch the museum and the city itself, making it a sort of Forli of Tuscany in terms of promoting art and exhibitions. Instead, it was preferred to focus oncontemporary art, but it is not enough to provoke with easy operations like Hirst’s to be able to call oneself contemporary. Also because one can be contemporary by enhancing the ancient: everyone remembers the exhibition on Piero della Francesca, seven years later. Almost no one remembers the last (as well as first) edition of Icastica. And the numbers also speak for themselves: the exhibition on Piero recorded 160,000 visits, the last edition of Icastica, on the other hand, just over 20,000. So, if a model works, why not replicate and enhance it?

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