As the movie1’s narrator said:
There are 8 million stories in the naked city, and this is just one of them.
In recent months, my art/world dichotomy has polarised itself around the need to reconcile the relative merits of artworks by the great and good on the one hand, and the urgency for all of us to act on climate change on the other. This may seem a very unequal contest in terms of their respective corners and weight divisions, but where is the place for art and culture on an uninhabitable planet? Is it simply a matter of legacy, where we hope that post-Anthropocene beings will one day rediscover with wonder, La Giaconda, or Kapoor’s Cloud Gate along with the Altamira cave paintings and trillions of abandoned cell phones, decaying and dead, and devoid of communications. The ironic parallel between talking art whilst Rome metaphorically burns is not lost on me or surely any other commentator. But there is, I believe, much more to this imponderable scenario worthy of consideration than meets the layperson’s eye.
I will state for the record that Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, (1991) remains possibly the most poignant work of art I have ever seen. Why? Well, apart from the visual shock and awe experienced when first encountering a dead shark in all its engineered glory, its conceptual/emotional reverberations have remained with me like a spectre since the day I first saw it. Furthermore, here I will argue that I believe this work to be unsurpassed in contemporary art as it acts as a summary and portent for the effects of humankind’s dangerously objectified relationship to nature as both spectacle and resource. Our curiosity is damned. Our natural scientists, botanists, lepidopterists, ornithologists and Victorian specimen collectors et al are indicted as we erroneously admire mausoleums such as the Natural History Museum in London, the American Museum of Natural History, the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, the list is endless and their contents shocking. If one emptied out the quantity or the world's natural history museums as living entities, we could probably re-wild the planet.
So here I am, aware that I am starting to sound like a luddite, iconoclast or eco-terrorist extremist, but I assure you that I am not. I am simply a sentient individual driven to conscience by what I see as the profound, and perhaps irreversible damage rendered by insane geo-politicisation and the lack of imagination demonstrated by Biden, Johnson, Putin, Jinping and the rest. I for one would love to see them debate Hirst’s shark and its title. In case the reader might think that the other images of artworks surrounding this article are for decoration, each tells its own imaginative story.
But that isn’t even the crux of it; and back to Hirst whose vision by implication indicts the inability of our societal leaders to grasp even basic philosophy, and here I use the term “philosophy” advisedly and in its truest sense. Essentially I think a lot of the world is the wrong way around, and if you don’t believe me then ask yourself, in terms of forming a fundamental insight into the human condition who has been the most successful post-Renaissance? The contenders might be (in no particular order): Politicians, scientists, dictators, medics, industrialists, architects, realtors, bankers, poets, artists, revolutionaries… Currently, I would bet you a pound to a penny that in the midst of Covid-19, many would acclaim the huge advances in science, vaccines and our longevity as the saviour of humankind. In many respects, these claims hold much water in terms of alleviating human suffering, extending life expectancy and, of course, inventing drones, AI and space travel. But of course, the murky origins of Covid-19 may well also lie at the door of science and its objectification and subsequent weaponization of naturally occurring, but obscure, viruses. Seek and ye shall find as they say, even if that is in the bowels of a bat cave.
To cut this long story short, Hirst epitomises the ability, momentary but seismic, to imagine the unimaginable, but more than this, to give physical form and to make accessible those apparently unimaginable ideas; ideas that essentially capture the quandary/quality of mortality.
The corollary (antithesis) of artists’ ability to imagine, sadly, is the apparent inability of our political leaders to do the same beyond the expediency of their transient political careers. Unless of course I do them a collective disservice by underestimating them and they know something we don’t, or perhaps they simply aren’t sharing.
1 The Naked City is a 1948 film, filmed on the streets of New York City, in which the police investigate a woman's murder, with the actors playing their roles along with the people and the locations of NYC. Directed by Jules Dassin. Written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald.