Since the late 1980's British artists Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst have been both admired and hated for their highly controversial work. This essay will focus on their values and beliefs as artists and how these messages are conveyed in their artwork. For the purpouse of this essay I have defined values as worth in usefulness, highly regarded and important to the posses or, and beliefs as the feeling of certainty that something exists or is true. It is the mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality or validity of something. 1 Hirst 31, received the Turner Prize in 1995.
He aims to shock as well as portray his personal beliefs in a very original and obscure manner. Emin's work includes the famous embroidered tent Everyone I slept with (1995) and My Bed (1998). The Sensation shows in London and New York sparked up major controversy and outrage with Emin and Hirst being the centre of scrutiny. This attention emerged to debates about the role of art and the extent that it has stretched to. This shows how these artists will put their reputation on the line and allow themselves to be scrutinised and judged in order to inflict upon society what they value and believe in. Despite the outrage Sensation was successful and it was the public's dislike of these works that heightened their appeal.
This exhibition did prove that art in any form is the highest form of expression. To gain a valuable insight into the meaning and significance of an artwork one must consider the cultural context in order to understand direct and indirect portrayals of values and beliefs. It is sometimes hard to understand these values and beliefs when you are faced with highly grotesque works from the likes of Hirst and Emin. Some works that appear extremely disturbing have been described as "optimistic, life affirming and celebrating". 2 So one wonders what values a maggot infested cows' head represents?
Unlike Hirsts opinionated work about immortality and death, Emin's art is representative of her emotions and life experience. She has been said to produce autobiographical art, raw pieces that form a sort a confessional. Stating "There should be something revelatory about art"3 her works serve as a way in which her intimate feelings and insecurities are expressed. Over the years there has been a debate of how values and beliefs are placed within an artwork. Her artwork titled My Bed is a recreation of the scene she spent four days contemplating suicide and this shows where her values lie.
It is a way of dealing with her trauma such as her abortion, rape, drinking and it is her beliefs about these very issues that come through in her works. One such example is a patchwork embroiled about the death of a baby featured in her latest exhibition You forgot to kiss my soul. Although the portrayal of what you believe in is important the general idea of art today dictates that the meaning is not fulfilled without the interaction of the viewer. This is important because these artworks are so complex they can be interpreted in various ways and individuals do perceive them differently. As is expressed in various critics articles within contemporary visual culture today " the meaning of an artwork is often seen as fluid- because it is not fixed to one viewpoint, time or place". 4 When asked about the cows' head Hirst initially commented that his intention was " to make people feel like burgers" 5.
The belief that is portrayed through the maggot infested cow's head is the concept of life and death. The maggots represent the concept of decay and the inevitability of death. But as mentioned above Hirst sees his work as optimistic. The artist uses the disturbing content to make the viewer indulge in everyday items and in life itself which he / she may take for granted. This idea of death and carnage is enforced in many works such as This Little Piggy Went To The Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home (1996). This particular piece is of a bisected pig in formal mounted on an automated track.
Not only did this piece outrage viewers but it forced them to stare death in the face. "When death becomes art, we can't avert our eyes. I hope it makes people think of what they take for granted. Like smoking, like sex, like love, like life, like advertising, like death... I want to make people frightened of what they know. I want to make them question".
6 The themes of death and decay is explored in more detail in Lost Love, Love Lost and in other works with rotting animal parts. This is a contrast between Emin and Hirst. Hirst seems to indulge in a range of themes that are global whilst Emin is more self-absorbed using art as a way of finding closure and expressing the pain, emotion and events in her life. It seems as if when she portrays events such as photographs of the destruction of paintings due to her abortion, she is putting the pain in a gallery and using this as a way of dealing with what goes wrong and is inevitable. One of her early exhibition My Major Retrospective, also enforces this as it shows a story of tragedy, pain and sexual abjection. Her art is mainly about disclosure and she explores this in diverse ways.
To convey their values and beliefs both Hirst and Emin take objects out of context and as Hirst says "relocates meaning"7. Emin does this through My Bed. In his works titled Holidays / no Feelings (1989) and Party Time (1985). Hirst conveys his feelings on issues such as smoking by using an ashtray with a massive cigarette landfill. He portrays his beliefs about chemical dependence, preservation, and disease through an installation titled Pharmacy.
Despite their strange subject matter both artists seem to be on a quest of producing pieces that make their existence worthwhile and somehow in their eyes justify this increasingly "unjust"8 world. Hirst uses poetic titles that contrast with the content of his works in order to confuse the viewer just as Marcel Duchamp did in 1910 with his ready-made's. "I really like those long clumsy titles which try to explain something but end up making it worse, leaving huge holes for interpretation". 9 It is arts' advantage to be highly capable of recording the artists' beliefs, and both Hirst and Emin use this to their advantage to "express their philosophy of life" 10. Hirsts' works ranging from the spot paintings to the animal parts are not intended to be aesthetic or amusing but rather confrontational. The painting may seem innocent and pleasant but relates to drugs / pills.
In contrast Emin's work is a little amusing as well as tragic due to her outlook on life and eccentric personality. They allow their reputation and personality to become part of every piece. While Emin dramatisizes and is more outrageous Hirst seem to not care what anyone thinks of him. "I don't give a f about what people say"11, and it is precisely this attitude that adds to the controversy and appeal for many. Their work, their personalities and in turn their values and beliefs are so outrageous they have art buyers like Saatchi offering to buy artworks that he hasn't yet layed eyes on. Both Hirst and Emin use existing objects but also experiment greatly with mixed media.
Hirst believes that it is far more important to assemble objects in order to achieve a meaning rather than assuring people that you can draw well. It is these viewpoints that challenge the boundaries of art. Sometimes they challenge them so far that people initially react in a violent manner. Hirst's Away From The Flock which featured a preserved lamb was vandalised at an exhibition when someone threw ink into the tank. Similarly Emin's My Bed was also vandalised at an exhibition. In the past artists would have been outraged but this just adds to Hirst and Emin's popularity and artistic status.
Living in a world where most are conforming Hirst based a piece titled Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same direction for the purpouse of understanding. As expressed by his mother this does mirror society and it is a very sad thing. He does not only reflect his personal values but also society's. Even though their art is criticized their popularity is soaring.
The fact that they are so popular shows that the public does to an extent identify and accept their values and beliefs. Through controversy emerges diverse material and due to this Brit Art has never had a larger audience. Debates do arise and some do get very serious and this shows how important the art genre really is. Whether it is controversial or conforming art for some has always been a successful way out.
"The art world's about money but art is about life". 12 Based critics articles on Emin and Hirst I have come to realise that people thrive on controversy and are challenged by this work. It is the artists beliefs and values that clash with society restricted values and beliefs. What these artists are aiming to do is not only project their unique personality but also push society in a different direction to see things in a different way. This is why work that was branded "conceptual bullshit" (Kim Howells) is now being recognised not for its content but for its success in changing the concept of art. Once branded as "crap" these artists have come to dominate British Conceptual art and be very influential as individuals.
This is ideally the reason as to why these artists succeed as much shock.