Beyond Bad: Learning to Love Damien Hirst

It’s sad to watch someone drift over to the dark side. I’m not talking about Anakin Skywalker. I’m talking about renowned Guardian art blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Jones. I don’t know Jonathan, but I’ve read enough of his work to feel like I do. When I read his recent post, “Why I've joined Damien Hirst's bad taste party,” I wanted to stage an intervention. Jonathan states his reasons clearly and argues his points well. But here’s my attempt at saving his soul, and perhaps the soul of art and culture in the world today.

People have asked me (and I’ve asked myself) why I write about people such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and other “star” artists who seem short on substance and long on self-promotion in the name of profit. The fact of the matter is, they can’t be ignored, for better or worse. If you write about the art world, it seems absurd to steer around them in the name of some kind of principle. They are the 800-pound gorillas that must be taken on no matter what. Perhaps by taking them on, even in my humble fashion, they seem slightly smaller.

The punch in the gut moment for me in Jonathan Jones’ post came when he grudgingly gave credit to the Stuckists, the anti-Hirsts of the modern art world in many ways. “The Stuckists are right about a lot (just wrong about everything that matters),” Jones concedes, “it is absolutely true that art in the 21st century, with its conceptual tropes and market values, lacks the permanent merits of earlier art. But if it matters—and it does—this has to be for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with taste.” Ever have a friend turn so cynical that you go speechless for a moment? That’s how I felt.

Is modern art merely “conceptual tropes and market values” and, therefore, so disposable that it “lacks the permanent merits of earlier art”? Has art and civilization suddenly taken some cataclysmic turn in which nothing is worthy of posterity, if such a concept even still exists? It’s an end-of-the-world scenario that renders everything done today worthless. Even worse, we can’t even go back to the past for that sense of “permanent merits.” “Basically, if you dismiss Hirst,” Jones concludes, “get you to an Old Master gallery—because the only legitimate position from which to reject him is one that sees the art of this century as a bad parody of Duchamp, and prefers the proper arts of painting and carved sculpture.” Jones leaves us the “out” of the Old Masters, but how are we poor saps trapped in the age of meaninglessness ever going to get back to the Garden of Eden of meaningful painting and sculpture short of a time machine? No, we’re tainted by the modern trappings that have formed us. Either all is bad Duchamp or nothing is.

Jones uses the occasion of Hirst’s upcoming “Souls” exhibition of butterfly paintings to express his surrender to the art star market. (One of Hirst’s earlier butterfly works, Souls on Jacob’s Ladder Take Their Flight, from 2007, is shown above.) “If conceptual strategies have any worth at all, then Hirst has worth,” Jones says in defense of his conversion. “He has already secured his place in art history. He can fart around for 20 years painting in his shed if he wants to. We critics can hurl our insults, but he is much cleverer than us. He knows good taste is for fools.” In the comments to his post, Jones adds, “I am not saying Hirst is kitsch and ironic, so bad he's good, or any of those things. I am saying his ambition and ideas put him beyond good or bad as defined in contemporary art criticism, or fashion.” Jones imagines a world beyond good or bad, where the market sets values—usually quantifiable ones such as dollars. The qualifiable ones—the soft science of good or bad art exercised by critics both amateur and professional—are dead or, worse, irrelevant. Only fools think otherwise. Hirst has won.

Not so fast, I say. Travel back in that time machine to the nineteenth century, step outside, and listen for the names of the art stars. Listen hard for Manet, Cezanne, or any of the other usual suspects rounded up for blockbuster exhibitions today. Hear names such as Ernest Meissonier and Hans Makart and wonder who they are. Then take solace in the idea that there have always been art stars hogging the limelight, just as there have always been greater figures lingering in the shadows, biding their time. For every Hirst or Koons ruling the Earth today, take comfort in the knowledge of a Marina Abramović who will eventually eclipse them. Perhaps not today, but someday. Taste is not for fools. Taste is for dreamers who are realistic enough to believe that talent will rise to the top and that time, and not record prices, will render the proper judgment.

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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