'I flirted with the idea of pickling people': How far is too far when it comes to Art?

Jake Watson discusses Damien Hirst's artwork and the moral and ethical boundaries of artistic pursuits.

Jake Watson
2nd March 2021
Credit: Wikipedia

Earlier this month The Guardian released an interview with Damien Hirst on his latest artistic endeavours where he discusses his current exhibition, Mental Escapology.

The exhibition features statement outdoor pieces such as Hirst’s 12-foot-high sculpture, The Monk, placed in the heart of the frozen Lake St. Moritz, as well as, Temple, a colossal 21-foot painted bronze sculpture depicting an anatomical model – like the one we all remember from the biology department at school (likely named Jon Bone Jovi, or something to that effect). Yet, despite Hirst’s leviathan artistic works, it was another comment from the UK’s richest artist (he’s worth a cool $384 million) that garnered the most attention: ‘I flirted with the idea of pickling people’.

Although startling, it’s not too much of a shock. Hirst is well known for his rebuttal of the artistic status quo and disquieting subject matter of his works. His most noted pieces, the first of which is titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, involve the suspension of animals in large glass tanks filled with Formaldehyde. The more jarring of them show animals cut in half, displaying their organs. However, the proposition of using real human bodies in artwork begs an important question: when does shock outweigh artistic value in work that is designed to be provocative? Or more succinctly, how far is too far when it comes to art?

For centuries, the artist has been heralded as the visionary of the generation. Their role? To challenge the zeitgeist, represent the human condition, and help establish new ways of thinking by breaking down societal barriers.

It is the artist who takes the leap, and in time, the population follows. But for many, Hirst’s idea of ‘pickling humans’ feels like a new, transgressive territory that is a little further than we want to stretch. Is using bodies of humans in artwork a fracturing of our moral code, or does it represent a new era in art that allows for us to truly express the centrality of what it is to be human?

In an interview with ArtNews, American art critic Arthur Danto argues that ‘You can murder someone and call it a work of art, but you are still a murderer. Morality trumps aesthetics. That’s my view’. It really is a question of morality, and of course, each individual’s moral values differ. In the same article, Tom Eccles argues that ‘we know what the ethical boundaries are, but some figures in the art world like to put blinkers on and use the notion of art to trump that. For me, Andres Serrano’s use of cadavers [in photographs] is an example of something I think is immoral. He is using the body parts of dead people without their permission’. If we use the body of someone who wishes to be a part of the artwork, is it all okay? Maybe.

There is a genuine basis for the use of human bodies to provide artistic value in artwork, and in a global culture that is increasingly unjaded by media and culture that is so often graphic or deliberately repulsive (think Netflix’s Making a Murderer), is it something that we really need to debate too much? As for now, Damien Hirst won't be pickling any humans, so it's a question that only time holds the answer to.

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AUTHOR: Jake Watson
2nd year French and English Literature student at Newcastle University, with an interest in all things Arts and Culture. Fran Leibowitz wannabe. @JMichaelWatson on Twitter.

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