The Truth about Verity

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

The Truth about Verity

Postby beltandbraces » Thu Oct 18, 2012 1:40 pm

The truth is there is something about “Verity” Damien Hirst’s newly installed 65ft seaside saucy statue. That something may well turn out to be truly terrible but that sword held aloft to the elements “by the power of grey skull” prods my old grey matter. That dank old cavern whence my soul has fled. Like Verity, Hirst stands out on the craggy coastline of British art. There is no missing him. After being lost in the first Freeze show he swore he would never be missed again. I have a suspicion that the "something” that bothers me could be distilled to one word. “Naff”. That Princess Anne endorsed phrase that is in itself… well… naff. There’s a wrong end of the stickness to it. Like that creepy Dr. Hagen Das who freezes people. Oooh look we’re all flesh and blood and will one day die but we stand defiant in the face of everything nature can throw at us. Admirable sentiments. But still a bit embarrassing. But hey that’s good isn’t it? I’m challenged into being embarrassed. Well perhaps I should get angry instead of embarrassed. I mean Hirst is no Paul Day who would seem like to easy a target but there is something of the pomposity of Day’s “Meeting” in Hirst’s “Verity”. Damien Hirst seems to have unwittingly strayed into the arena of Public Art where not even the depth of empathy found in a Henry Moore will keep you safely beyond the withering gaze of Mr. Clean. Respect is due for Damien’s competition winner's ear for a good punning title though. On my recent visit to his (long over due) retrospective at the Tate Modern I marvelled at the titles alone. The winner is ‘Beautiful, pop, spinning ice creamy, whirling, expanding painting’.
I should explain that all sense of human endeavour does excite me. Ever since my teacher intoned a passage of Milton giving shape Satan's rhetoric on the burning lake. I find myself drawn to any trace of our failings and so such a grand clunky design does entice the humanist in me. The scale of the sheer wrongness is mesmerising. All that would be valiant if there was a hint of self-depreciating humour. Some attempt at hiding the effort of the construction. But no the height (is it 65 or 66ft/) the tonnage (20 tonnes) the amount of separate components (40 individual castings over a central stainless steel frame with an appended glass fibre reinforced polymer arm) is somehow what it is. No more no less. What saves it perhaps is function. This bening that now approaching matelots will find the hitherto evasive harbour much easier to spot. In a recent Daily Mail travel blog Frank Barrett draws a comparison to the outrage that the Eiffel Tower drew from even the most cultured of Parisians and suggests that citizens of Ilfracombe will soon come to love the statue and end up finding it hard to give her up when the 20 year lease comes up. There is an interesting analogy here in that the sole function of the Eiffel tower was to be wind resistant at such great height. This defined the form. Hirst's statue under went rigorous wind tunnel tests to make sure it would withstand the high winds and sea spray. Perhaps this is what led to the streamline “by the power of grey skull” stylings. In much the same way that classical statuary used the tree stump to give the figure stability.
The classical allusion is no accident and over the years Hirst has flogged the Écorchéd corpse (Hymn) in what seems like a scream for intellectual recognition. Since the high renaissance the understanding of what lies beneath the surface of the human form has been somehow synonymous with intellectual rigour. To draw the surface we must first understand the internal anatomy. Boy oh boy there are still people who teach drawing like this too. This obsession led to the strangest most neurotic strategies in the name of art. I point the reader towards Smuggleris was one such abomination that grew from the idea that classicism provided a backbone of rigorous intellectual stability.
Verity is pointing up at the soul shaped hole. The pagan void where nothing is sacred. God as man is dead. God as dad is dead. Yes get over it and move on it was your idea to make it a he and give him a beard in the first place, to summarise Feuerbach. My point is that Hirst is of that lineage from Michelangelo of art that uses sheer scale and grand endeavour to escape earthly shackles because is has no access to the appropriate language of metaphor to do otherwise. Humanism led to a species-specific fixation with the material world as it rapidly became laid bare to the expanding intellect of the western mind. Michelangelo’s only escape was to therefore depict himself in the last Judgement as the flayed figure of St. Bartholomew. Escaping his own skin – geddit? Prior to the Renaissance, Art (of the Byzantine nature) had been about an unspoken resonance beyond the surface of the image. There was no struggle between seeing "through" the image and being made aware of the surface of the picture plain – dilemmas I suggest that drove the artist from Eden. However, Michelangelo also happened to escape the earthly shackles by the happy accident of his sublime virtuosity and understanding of materials. Remember he “found” David within the marble. Although the apparent subject of the statue is intellect defeating brawn something far more profound emerges through the miracle of process. that something is just that - miraculous. Damien Hirst was (un)fortunate enough to have become an artist in a time when to "chose" is enough to make something art (with enough conviction/scale). Duchamp was not suggesting for one minute that all artists follow this strategy rigidly but that is what our “success’ based culture has arrived at as a template a century on. Make no mistake this statue is about “art” and mortality. Equals hubris. Duh duh duh. Life, death, flesh and blood, defiance - Underscored with the heady acrid bouquet of imagining what would Gordon Ramsey make if he was a sculptor? Certainly nothing as exquisite as Degas “Little Dancer” upon which “Verity” is said to have been modelled. Degas has made the soul visible in that piece but Hirst seems not to have notice that he has let the posture lose its grace. The sculpture I must conclude is a sixth form essay writ large in 40 separate castings on a stainless steel frame. Sounds good to me. I want to see it but then I am a sucker for seaside novelties.
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Re: The Truth about Verity

Postby CAP » Fri Oct 19, 2012 10:12 am

Some interesting points in there, B&B, I agree with most of it. I just want to add to a little bit about Michelangelo and life drawing – which I taught at one time. Michelangelo arises in this discussion as the champion of classical ideals and the analysis of anatomy, but in the context of public sculpture it’s worth remembering that his David, when initially positioned in a square in Florence, was stoned by the populace as offensive, pagan and basically poofy. Some details of the face were damaged as a result and after a couple of days it was transferred to a more sheltered location for repairs. All three points had been discreetly anticipated by that sage old fairy, Leonardo Da Vinci, who conveyed his concerns to their mutual patron, the Medici, in a brief note, something along the lines of “Jeez Lorrie, it’s really hot and everything but do you think the general public is ready for it?” Lorenzo’s reply is not recorded, but one can assume it will have been along the lines of “Too bad if they’re not. Who runs this town anyway?”

Were the general public just a little less informed than the Medici circle of so-called Neo-Platonists, or did they simply exploit the opportunity of publicly slagging Medici patronage for political or civic ends? Politics and art are not always easily separated, especially in public. The Medici and the rest of Florence understood this. They knew all about getting in your face for conspicuous display of advantage. We call it advertising. And it was not just one or two vandals at work, the sculpture had created a riot that went on for several days. The citizens were not having the symbol of their city turned into a giant gay icon, classical bully or wanton nudist. The Old Testament makes no mention of nudity for David, in fact mentions a cloak when going into battle, whereas Greek and Roman ideals of combat often supposed nudity, often condoned homosexuality. Then there’s the puzzling detail of David’s non-circumcision – but I’ve taken that up in an earlier post. Suffice to say there were legitimate objections to Michelangelo’s interpretation. Brilliant piece of monumental masonry or not, when viewed by non-specialists the issues quickly become more general. And this seems to me the fate of public sculpture. On the one hand it’s established names like Hirst that get the big gigs, on the other, outside of a gallery or sculpture garden, sculpture (rightly) becomes the target for all sorts of agendas.

Civic planners crave some general acceptance of the arts but for the most part this is a recipe for mediocrity. And when it’s not, it’s a big name foisted on some quiet little corner that has to lump it. The sad fact is not everyone likes art, nor do they have to like it. It’s called freedom. Even where they do like art, strong differences of opinion tend to rule out agreement about most adventurous works. You just can’t have it both ways – bold art and popular art. People from time to time pretend what’s popular is bold but mostly this is to diminish what counts as bold. I’ve nothing against traditional, staid public sculpture – we all need our roots – but I don’t confuse it with current, more controversial endeavours.

As for the importance of anatomy for figure studies – or life drawing, mostly, it’s true if you have a model handy there’s no need to try and construct one from anatomy. I learned drawing from copying reproductions, then simple still life arrangements, occasionally a plaster cast of a torso or head and then graduated to life classes. That’s pretty much how I spent my evenings as a mid to late teen. But where the model is less than perfect for your needs, or one simply isn’t available, a system based on a skeleton and muscles does come in handy. I found it sharpened what I looked for in a model as well. Knowing what shoulder blades were and how they worked helped me observe actual shoulder blades. But could I tell you now all the names of the bones and muscles? No, I’ve forgotten all the anatomical names. I think I only learned them for a written test. Anatomy certainly didn’t harm my drawing. I don’t think it’s overly materialistic, but then I’m perhaps not overly transcendental. I suppose I’m more Marxist than Hegelian on that score. Nor do I find it over-intellectualised. Art is not science, true, but art is certainly free to use whatever knowledge is available, if there are sufficiently strong or puzzling feelings associated with it. Rejecting intellect cripples sensitivity.

Finally, I disagree that the Renaissance’s promotion of perspective creates a dilemma for the perception of content as well as technique. This is the sort of mumbo jumbo Clement Greenberg propounded and why he was probably assassinated. The picture as a compelling illusion, one sees through, like a window, where technique is as if transparent. But how many are actually deluded by pictures – even photographs - in this way? At best the description holds only for instances of trompe l’oeil. And one can hardly count that as the usual use of pictures. Even where the artist shuns facture and lavishes detail on a picture there are endless criteria for composition, for elegance, for colour harmony, for drama or conflict, for omission or elision, for metaphor, hyperbole and all manner of rhetoric, that promptly defer any default realism or convincing illusion. So perspective might advance on earlier orthogonal or oblique projections as a 3-D spatial system for pictures, but it hardly presents some damning paradox. If I were E. H. Gombrich I might see it as some great step forward, except that Gombrich also admits that art does not really progress, so art acquires a great tool but there’s no telling what it will use it for or say with it. Actually, when you come right down to it, it’s not as if it could even say the same things as earlier paintings, even when supposedly taking the same subject. But that's another topic. ;)
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