Wrestling with Installation Art, p. 4

They also obliged me to reconsider Hirst, who does, after all, force one to reconsider what art is and teaches ways of seeing things differently. His dead sheep, for instance, is horrible yet beautiful. Though it was not at the Gagosian exhibit I saw, I've spent a lot of time staring at photographs of it and trying to explain to myself why it does not belong in an art gallery. Yet the Arte Povera show has convinced me that, ultimately, it does belong, for what Hirst has done is frozen the sheep mid-canter, creating a powerful contrast between the dreadful stillness of the installation and the brisk movement the sheep's body conjures up in my mind. It is not so different from Pistoletto's cube, for much of what I 'see' when I look at the piece is not the object itself but the picture it inspires in the imagination.

Does this make me a convert? Not exactly. The best of installation art, like most things post-modern, reminds me of Clifford Geertz's description of something being "good for thinking." It can be smart, elegant even, but ultimately it is art for the mind. As much as I enjoy that kind of stimulation, viewing Arte Povera makes me realize the extent to which I remain a die-hard Romantic. I can learn to respect installation art. But I prefer art that unites the emotional with the intellectual, art that addresses my heart or even my soul. I was reminded of this the other night when I returned home half-drunk and a little melancholy. I turned on the stereo and listened to Kathleen Battle sing Brahms's "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit." She made me cry. Can postmodern art do that?

[1]       [2]       [3]       4
Image: Damien Hirst,
Away from the Flock (1994)

Michael Shurkin is an unrepentant Romantic and art critic for Zeek.

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