Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Damien Hirst—Terror and the Sublime—“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"

The closest I have come to understanding that poor, discombobulating shark is in its current showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An essay posted in the gallery, "Terror and the Sublime," promises to put Hirst's grotesquerie into some artistic context, but you will not find many visitors pouring over the educational materials. They simply cannot take their eyes off the fish.

There is still the faint physical rush of fear (frissons?) to be had looking directly into those dilapidated jaws. That physical sensation is real and therein lies the important question for those interested in art. Is that physical sensation, that vestigial terror, a component of an artistic sublime? Harold Bloom when discussing literary sublime, asks of a particular work, "Is there something greater written before? Has something greater been written since?" Easy questions to ask, but difficult to answer. Through the process of parsing comes an understanding of the sublime. Mozart's C Minor Piano Concerto, Beethoven's Third Symphony, Bach "St. Matthew Passion," these works can also offer a certain terror as we contemplate the complexities of the human creative force; a force powerful enough to create works of art beyond our ability to understand, yet though which we hope to better understand our own lives.

I do not believe Hirst's is an artistic sublime at all. The animal terror he evokes or invokes, depending on your point of view, is a thrill that has more in common with horror movies, circus acts, and roller coasters. Devised as "controlled" risks, we feel the thrill of danger without exposing ourselves to bodily threat. Peering into the mouth of a dead shark, we find the same feelings. Modern life neuters so much of the ancient animal in us; these experiences act to remind us of the dangerous thrill of living. But is this the role of art in society?

Hirst's work elicits fast reactions, but lacking true beauty or mystery, there is nothing to contemplate. More a point-of-view than a work of art, once its point is made, we don't need to see it again, ever. The artistic sublime requires from us more than we can give, more contemplation than one lifetime can accomplish, more creative engagement than we thought we had. The artistic sublime is larger than we are, and when we partake of it, we become larger, ourselves.

In a sense, I am glad that the shark is at the MET. Disengaging our gaze from
its facile, lurid seductiveness, we are reminded that true works of imaginative genius promise a lifetime of engagement, and indeed pleasurable effort. Great works of art will repay such efforts in abundance.

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