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Ships of Theseus – Style VS Brand

“The Ship of Theseus paradox, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object.”

(the video below is important to the critique. youtube has disabled the embedding. you can view it here or you can click into the black area of the video.)A couple of years ago we all participated in the controversy that dogged Damien’s shark. Saatchi had sold the decaying corpse to an American hedge fund billionaire who then had rehired Hirst to repair the damaged piece. Hirst purchased a new shark, and using updated preservative techniques, replaced the old remains with a new corpse. The usual questions ensued – Is it the same piece? Did he destroy the original? The common fallback position for experts and the press was to state that the piece was illustrative of a concept rather than an actual sculpture. This fallback was also Hirst’s, and it neatly tied up any arguments about the physical, the actual and the real in one big red Platonic bow. The shark tank then wound up in the Metropolitan galleries, around the corner from a glass of water by Matisse. Hirst’s idea weighs about a ton, Matisse’s idea just a few ounces. In September Hirst resold that “idea” along with a few of his others in various sizes. In the art world this has become known as working in series, in the marketing world this is known as merchandising a brand. “In marketing, one of the definitions of merchandising is the practice in which the brand or image from one product or service is used to sell another.” The advertising popularity of Hirst’s shark spawned the spins, the cabinets, the diamond skulls and the color dots – each idea then being recombined with recent art history creating a few recognizable lines of product. Each always already familiar, each understood immediately as art, each connoting a specific type of existence, comfort and desirability. But the thing built into all of the works, in their presentation, in their marketing was the one thing that guaranteed their ultimate success as sellable luxury products – nostalgia.

Throughout the history of art artists have tried to portray life in all its forms, creating new styles of art to express their times, their ideas and their lives. In fact this need to “make it new” had been the basic drive underlying western art creating an atmosphere of experimentation, progression and innovation. Until just a few years ago art was a continuing dialectic, testing first principles, new ideas and new visions. However that all changed when the avant garde declared that history no longer existed. In one fell swoop of theoretical smugness intellectuals declared that life was now outside the processes of fleshy existences. Abstraction had swamped the boat of history by encasing the physical figurative in brackets. Many critics began to focus on the institutionalization of avant garde practices and the new postculture that was taking hold. Harold Rosenberg declared that the concept of a revolutionary avant garde was being institutionalized, and in the academies, advanced art had become “…a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it.” In other words by professionalizing rebellion we remove its transgressive nature. Critics also understood that reproduction and repetition, the twin barrels of the postmodern practice, now placed the artist in a parasitic relationship with the past. The institutional artist would no longer be born of art, but would instead, feed from it.

“In deconstructing the sister notions of origin and originality, postmodernism establishes a schism between itself and the conceptual domain of the avant-garde, looking back at it from across a gulf that in turn establishes a historical divide. The historical period that the avant-garde shared with modernism is over.” Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths

Suddenly there was nothing that could be new, but everything could be “new.” Our yearning for a golden time of art making, the urgency of the early modernists, the insouciant strangeness of the Surrealists, the mythic years of the AbEx painters, the iconoclasm of the Popsters, the intellectual rigor of the Minimalists, the fury of the Expressionists – all of it would return on the carousel of nostalgia in turn after turn of the New New. We continued to take Theseus’ ship apart and rebuilt it until we weren’t sure what was original and what wasn’t. It no longer mattered – we had become entranced by the thought that we were making art rather than actually creating Art. The ship of our history had attained Platonic perfection.

…To A Place Where We Know We Are Loved

Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell. One. He couldn’t give them away. Almost no one could bear his work, even among the most modern of his colleagues… everybody hated them. We’re so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for van Gogh’s neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh. And yet looking at art history we see that these other guys were pros. They started when they were kids. They sold their work. They worked on commission. There is no great artist in all art history who was as ignored as van Gogh, yet people are still afraid of missing the Van Gogh Boat.” Rene Ricard

Style is a dangerous thing. To develop one’s own style is to set one’s self apart from others’ expectations. However, this is only the outer part of the process, the inner one is far more dangerous. One must be willing to push against the grain, to consciously court failure and discomfort. One must be willing to step off the carousel. Those that have style live in the conviction of that style, and that usually leads to a confrontation – true style is always a challenge. One can get lost in the world that one creates, one can lose sight of the wheel as it turns and wind up crushed beneath it. There are many morality tales of those who flaunt the rules by developing their own style and becoming prisoners of it. Jackson Pollock drank, Van Gogh went mad, and Oscar was imprisoned.

“The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLANEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.” Oscar Wilde De Profundis

The success of style can be one’s undoing. But there is something else going on in Oscar’s declaration as well – “I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.” Style demands something further of an artist. Style demands passion. And for Oscar, as for many others, the idea of passion means that one may not be in control leading one to perversity, malady, madness. Style is born of one’s passions, it comes from one’s lower instincts. Style erupts through one’s being. Donald Judd who pared everything down to angles and surfaces had a style as vicious and unrelenting as Oscar’s florid quotes and quips. Whether expressionistic or sedate style emerges from one’s passions. We are undone when the passion is lost, when the style is no longer original, when we have refurbished it, reworked it and sanitized it in order to appeal to the crowd. We want them to remember, to see us at our best, our youngest, our most passionate. Success in one of its definitions means obsolescence. And achieving success means that one must court one’s obsolescence. An obsolete style no longer engages the crowds. One’s style and one’s passion are no longer fueled by the real, but have become artifacts, corpses in glass houses. We must replay that story, that history over and over for us to wind back at the beginning. We are back on the carousel, traveling through time, forward and back, to wind up at a place where we know we are loved.

But Damien is correct. His declaration that art is nothing more than an idea is where our culture has taken us. Style is too local, too specific, too physical, too personal for a global art world. Brand, however, can encompass style, history and production without demanding something deeper or more physical from the artist. A concept is all that is needed. Damien realized that making art was nothing more than developing Memento Mori out of art’s past. Death permeates his work, and as an artist, his work memorializes a different attitude towards art itself. He wants art to shock, to make one think, to challenge the status quo. But his work does none of that. It mourns. He tarts up the corpse, animates its pieces, he super-inflates its production hoping that somehow life is still there in the bits and pieces. But being an institutional artist he’s clever enough to spin his macabre nostalgia into a recognizable brand of conceptual undertaking. He does not risk style, he risks reputation. And that is the difference or differance. Style would mean the death of Damien Hirst, brand means DH Incorporated will live forever – as a conceptual artist he knows this idea is “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.” And he is by no means alone in this attitude. Artists, designers, fashionistas, architects all are busy trying to conceptualize brands in the graveyards of history. But what of style? What of the personal, passionate, living embodiment of rebellion?

“I am a born antinomian. I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws. But while I see that there is nothing wrong in what one does, I see that there is something wrong in what one becomes. It is well to have learned that.” Oscar Wilde

to be continued…

One Comment

  1. Hans wrote:

    By the way, I always found the Cow Parts of Hirst in its variations much a better comment, than the shark. nostalgia ? Yes, right, the stuff is built on a non-art component. Many interesting ideas here, waiting for continue

    Friday, March 6, 2009 at 7:47 AM | Permalink

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