Is a dead cow art?

Mother and Child Divided (fragment), 1995, Damien Hirst
Mother and Child Divided (fragment), 1995, Damien Hirst

Is a dead, stuffed cow preserved in formaldehyde and sealed in a large glass box art? Hundreds of years ago, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp, an American with no artistic skills but an aspiration to become an artist, started a trend. He bought a urinal, turned it upside down, and declared it Art. That was radical at the time when art was considered ‘beautiful’ and ‘made by artists’. “No, everything can be art!” Duchamp said. This idea started a new art movement — conceptual art.

Ideas and thoughts replaced paints and brushes. Now everyone can be an artist. The only skill they need is creativity. Some call creativity thinking ‘outside the box’. I prefer to call it thinking ‘across the boxes’.

‘Ready-mades’ revolutionised art and paved the way for new artists. Damien Hirst (born 1965 ), an English artist, followed the Duchamp steps: brave, he was not shy to build on someone else’s ideas. In the 1990s, Hirst was a leading member of the Young British Artist (YBA) movement. Employing ‘shock tactics’, the YBA artists proclaimed to ‘conquer the taboo and disturb hypocritical people’. Ready-mades became their technique.

In 1991, after studying at Goldsmiths Art College, Hirst began work on his famous series of dead animals. He described them as ‘laughing in the face of death’. Preserved in glass tanks filled with formaldehyde, his sharks, cows and goats became iconic symbols of modern art of the 1990s.

Like Duchamp’s work, which was called ‘sick’, Hirst’s dead animals were dismissed by critics as ‘cultural pollution’. But all major contemporary art museums and collectors bought Hirst’s work, reportedly making him the UK’s richest living artist; his goat with gold horns and hooves was sold for Sh1.7 billion. He had 80 solo exhibitions worldwide, a retrospective at Tate Modern, and was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize. I personally think his work beautiful, direct, and intense. He questions everything that is important in life and challenges what art is. His thinking extends my perspective.

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