Sensation and the Shark (Deceased): Art, Entertainment, Mortality, and Media Frenzies
Max Podstolski


There is no longer a clear distinction between 'good' and 'bad' art, if ever there was. Arguably there is only interesting art, which tells us something about ourselves, and uninteresting art, which fails to do so. Entertainment we can also find interesting ­ if it doesn't interest us then it can hardly be entertaining ­ but unless there is something more intriguing or profound than momentary diversion it will not count or last as art. While such generalisations will always be subverted, and the meanings of art constantly mutate, the presumption remains that, while art is not necessarily superior to entertainment, and art can be entertaining just as entertainment can be artful, each category means something quite different from the other.

Artworks are mirrors in which we glimpse our preconceptions, before turning away and moving on, or engaging in aesthetic or reflective contemplation. Art signposts human reality with all its pain and suffering, whereas entertainment in general terms deflects reality, providing an avenue of temporary escapism. The divergence is rarely so clear cut in actuality.

When looking at art we operate on the principle of 'no smoke without fire'. We presume that if an artwork makes us think ('smoke'), then some sort of equivalent thought went into its making ('fire'), and the artwork must be somehow imbued with the thought processes generated. While this doesn't necessarily follow, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some amount of human thought must have gone into any artwork, even if only to select.

The more that art generates thought, the more interesting it becomes. The more it ignites negative feedback and debate, the more notorious and sensational it becomes, the closer it approaches entertainment. Courting notoriety proved a tried-and-true strategy for gaining critical exposure in the past, and the tactic can succeed like wildfire in this global Internet village of the present, as we have seen with Sensation.

The public spectacle over Sensation first began gaining momentum in 1988, when Damien Hirst organised the Freeze exhibition of YBA's (Young British Artists) in London. The growing feeding frenzy reaction of the tabloids is chronicled ad nauseam in the recently-published weighty tome Young British art: the Saatchi decade (Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1999). Well before Sensation's New York opening on October 2nd the spectacle was rekindled, with critics, Mayor Giuliani, and other politicians lining up on one side or the other to pronounce the show bad, good, or some admixture of both.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art fanned the flames of controversy by posting a mock "health warning", itself generally criticised, on its web site: "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder, or palpitations, you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition." Obviously intended as tongue-in-cheek, this statement could only have been taken at face value by the straitlaced and humourless, or those believing everything about art must always be deadly serious.

Art continually changes because it mirrors changing human circumstances and consciousness (not forgetting that novelty, for its own sake, provides a sure-fire antidote to 'the same old thing'). The continuity of change includes the prospect of death, that every individual consciousness must eventually end. Much art alludes to this, directly or indirectly, though the unpalatable truth of our mortality is not something most people like to be reminded of. It is more comforting to imagine that the here-and-now will continue indefinitely, our current selves suspended agelessly in the illusion of the present.

This mental predisposition is cunningly evoked by a shark, a metaphor for humanity, in Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the seminal work of Sensation. The shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde is a 'something' rather than a 'someone', but it is human death that the title refers to, the end of human consciousness, and yes, sensation. (The name of the exhibition suggests more than just over-hyped 'sensationalism', though that may be the extent of the general public's perception of it.) Both sharks and humans are sentient beings, capable of sensation or feeling.

'End' in this context can refer not just to the ending of something (life), but to 'teleological end' or purpose towards which all living things move. While the assertion that life has no ultimate purpose other than death seems overly pessimistic and nihilistic, death is nonetheless 'the great leveller' of all sentient beings. Francis Bacon, Hirst's 'enfant terrible' predecessor and godfather to the YBA's, portrayed angst-filled subjects confronted with the futile nothingness of their lives, sometimes in the act of grasping at fleeting sensory gratification. Hirst, following suit with his shark and works on a similar theme, signposts the imminence of death. The direction indicated is mandatory, we will get there sooner or later. In the meantime we have sensation.

The shark makes poignant metaphorical reference to the human capacity for brutality, ruthlessness, and rapaciousness. Its human counterpart may be the critic indulging in a media feeding frenzy, or the manipulative entrepreneur or ad-man exploiting the gullible. Or on a more literal and horrific level, serial and mass murderers. Everywhere there are sharks that look like humans, out to 'make a killing'.

I wonder if Hirst was initially going to call the work something less metaphorical, e.g. "The Physical Impossibility of Sensation in the Body of Something Dead"? Too dull, perhaps, for stating the obvious. Or too reminiscent of Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch, skirting deliciously close to dissolving serious art into comic entertainment. (Conjuring images of John Cleese indignantly reeling off a stream of euphemistic invective: "this shark has expired, passed away, snuffed it, kicked the bucket, gone the way of all flesh, shuffled off this mortal coil", etc.)

The entire Sensation exhibition and debate, with its detractors' charges of smutty anti-Catholicism and defenders' appeals to artistic freedom and the First Amendment, is art and entertainment in equal measure, a quasi-Pythonesque circus of absurdity. It could be exactly what's needed to resuscitate the drowned-by-theory exquisite corpse of the artworld. Unless the shark's let loose on it.

This article originally appeared in *spark-online issue 3.0, Dec. 1999, at: