Art, otters and media racism

Part of the work of Lubaina Himid, the artist who won the Turner Prize 2017, consists of drawing attention to the ways in which the juxtaposition of texts and images in The Guardian newspaper can reveal implicit racist associations. Her work is infinitely more powerful for dealing with the liberal press rather than the undisguised bigotry of the tabloids. Some of the connections she uncovers are barely visible to the naked eye, and it is only through forensic (self?-) examination that one sees what she sees. Just as institutional racism may be of profound statistical significance but hard to register on an everyday level, it is only through the unforgiving lens of art that more subtle truths emerge. The heightened sensibilities that result from study of her work help us see better. Freud taught us to pay special attention to ‘accidents’ and ‘coincidences’, as they may reveal unconscious thinking. That unconscious can, to borrow from Jung, be a collective one.

What to say, then, of the following juxtaposition from a recent edition of (guess what?) The Guardian?

img-20181221-wa0005The (presumably ‘accidental’) coincidence of the two articles seems to embody two sets of hidden assumptions: one, that certain (or possibly all) species of sea mammals are able to use social media, to understand written human language even of a highly vernacular variety, to experience emotions including shame and outrage, to comprehend that human society regards body weight as a cause for humiliation, to grasp the insult implicit in the misappropriation of a non-standard and low-status language variety to speakers of that variety, and to appreciate the significance of apologies delivered by faceless institutions; and two, that the lives of foreigners don’t matter very much.

Thought you knew how racist the Daily Mail is? Think again.

No one else seems to have commented on this particular instance of synchronicity, so I may as well do so: this year the Turner Prize was won by a (brilliant, black, British) artist (Lubaina Himid) who, amongst many other things, highlights Guardian front page images and the adjacent headlines in order to draw attention to hidden racist assumptions. Today, some sharp-witted Twitterer spotted this (see screenshot) stark bit of pre-1970s racism on the front of The Newspaper That Hates Britain. It echoes the Sun front page of May 2015, which clearly spelled out JEW to anyone tempted to put that incompetent bacon-sandwich eater Miliband into power. Anyone inclined to dismiss either front page as an accident would do well to look up Freud’s work on slips of the tongue. Whether it was a conscious choice or not, if the Mail were anything other than a racist newspaper someone in the chain of command would have spotted the juxtaposition and removed it. Instead, they all nodded it through in that mini-Wannsee conference held daily at 11am in South Ken. 

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the article in question was written by the wife of a leading cabinet minister and Brexit acolyte. No wonder Michael Gove hates experts; I wouldn’t imagine he’s much of a fan of contemporary art either. The Shock Doctrine mentality of politicians such as him, Farage and Hannan, all of whom see Brexit as their chance to rip it all up and start again, has long reminded me of the Khmer Rouge, who, right from Year Zero, made it clear that they saw artists as, to borrow a not-entirely-random expression, ‘enemies of the people‘.

Damien Hirst: “F*ck all there at the end of the day”

A Dead Shark Isn’t Art, Stuckism International 2003
In addition to being worth over £100 million, Damien Hirst is, according to today’s Observer, the most powerful figure in the art world today. His new work will cost between £8-£10 million to produce, but when it is complete it will be worth a hell of a lot more:

Damien Hirst’s work in progress is a small, delicate object: a life-size human skull. Not just any skull, mind, but one cast in platinum and encased entirely in diamonds – some 8,500 in all. It will be the most expensive work of art ever created, costing between £8m and £10m.

‘I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death,’ said the artist, ‘What better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence? The only part of the original skull that will remain will be the teeth. You need that grotesque element for it to work as a piece of art. God is in the details and all that.’

Of course, diamonds are, for some people, as both Kanye West and Miss Dynamite have been keen to tell us, more than just a symbol of ‘luxury, desire and decadence’:

In many African countries, including Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) diamonds have been, and continue to be linked to terrible human rights abuses either by insurgent groups to fuel conflict and carry out atrocities against innocent civilians or by unscrupulous government who are equally brutal.

In addition concerns have mounted over links between conflict diamonds and money laundering by groups like Al-Qaeda. While the Kimberley Process marks a positive step towards protecting the legitimate diamond industry and consumers from purchasing tainted stones, much reform is needed. KP’s narrow definition of conflict diamonds does not include polished stones and jewelry and could exclude diamonds originating from recognized governments such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. (from Amnesty International‘s website).

Hirst doesn’t seem to be aware of this. As for ‘sticking two fingers up to death’, the writer Saul Bellow once remarked that ‘death is the solid backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything’. He was of course a lot older and nearer death than Damien Hirst, and may have been less inclined to insult that which loomed much larger and darker in his mirror than it does in Hirst’s presumably diamond-encrusted one. Oddly enough, the title of Hirst’s most famous (and inevitably most expensive) work was ‘The Physical Impossibility Of Death In the Mind Of Someone Living’.

That work was his dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, in case you were wondering. Not that I want to patronise anyone here, it’s just that most people, myself included, tend to remember the work itself rather than the name. It’s not clear whether the name is particularly important, given that Hirst once wrote of his own works:

“They’re bright and they’re zany – but there’s fuck all there at the end of the day.”

What strikes me about Hirst’s works is that, although he’s constantly cited as one of the world’s most successful artists, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this in anything other than commmercial terms. I’ve never heard anyone mention his shark piece in any context beyond the fact that it exists and that it cost a lot of money. There is never any indication that it has any meaning for anyone, let alone the artist himself. It has no resonance, it simply does not register in any discourse about art or about the world. Could that not be one mark of failure for an artist?

Maybe his next work should be a huge white diamond-encrusted elephant. He could get those French blokes to help him put it together. Then when they’ve finished we could all read in the newspapers about how fucking expensive the whole thing has been.