Damien Hirst is in trouble again, but not for a new piece of art. It’s an old piece of art; although I’m not clear whether the art is the head, or the two heads, or the photo of the two. OK, it’s some permutation of Damien himself with the head of a cadaver from a Leeds mortuary; and according to some concocted code of archaeological ethics, there have been calls for it to be removed from public view. This has led to the critic Jonathan Jones, whose exasperated contempt for Hirst’s recent stuff is well known, to defend the King of the YBAs. So in some shape or form this is art, maybe even good (qualitatively) art; but some people have decided that it’s bad (morally) art, so shouldn’t be seen out in public. OK, glad that one’s sorted.
And then we move on to the story of Olga Dogaru, who claims to have burned seven pictures that had been stolen from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Now, these certainly were art, because they were by the likes of Picasso and Monet, and were in the Kunsthal. But what happened to them after they were burned? Are the ashes art, whether because of some sort of aesthetic essence that pervades the charred scraps of painty canvas or because Dogaru’s act of burning itself can be perceived as some sort of Situationist prank, a sort of outsider take on what the Chapman brothers did to poor old Goya? Munch’s The Scream was badly damaged after it was stolen in 2004; how damaged does a work have to get before it ceases to be the work?
Or does their identity as art remain intact even after they’re gone, like the Colossus of Rhodes? Can we retrospectively apply conceptualist credentials to, say, Picasso’s Harlequin Head, because the idea behind it is stronger than the picture itself (the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak)? Or maybe the real art lies in the absence itself; in the gap where the pictures once existed.