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  • Victoria Comstock-Kershaw


The disapproval of material or method is not justification for the dismissal or disregard of the art that it has been used to create.

"I, for one, would be ashamed to own such a canvas." writes Rachel Campbell-Johnston. "Culturally appropriative, ugly nonsense" that a "five-year-old would love", according to Eddy Frankel and Alastair Sooke. Each of these critics are, of course, referring to Damien Hirst's new and madly divisive Mandalas exhibit at the White Cube, in which thousands and thousands of butterfly wings have been pinned into concentric circles and presented on canvases as large as six feet wide. The backlash against the use of the insects' wings has ranged from the hilariously over-emotional to the downright facetious, but the hysterics surrounding the 'cruel beauty' of Mandalas represent a knee-jerk and shallow reaction that the exhibit itself not only deserves better than, but modern art in general. The major arguments surrounding the use of butterflies can be summated by the very basic sentiment that repulsion towards the material justifies the repulsion towards the art; and while this repulsion may seem natural, it is simply not logical - or, perhaps more importantly, productive.

Subservience, 2019

The most common - and, perhaps, most natural - criticisms of Mandalas are those that stem from concerns for environmentalism and, to a lesser extent, animal cruelty. The sheer quantity of wings used to complete the series is impressive whichever way you look at it - the largest of the pieces are 108 inches wide, and encapsulate what must be the wings of at least 4,000 butterflies each. It is tricky to debunk the ethical concerns surrounding this without sounding like a Shapiro-esque anti-SJW, especially those stemming from genuine concern, but I will do my best. The trouble is that within the context of Hirst's work, these concerns lie somewhere between faux-woke and uneducated. Hirst did not pop down to some charming woodland estate in the Cotswold and gleefully decimate the popular of local butterflies; they were grown - either in a lab or insectarium - under his supervision (ethically, according to the pamphlet handed out at the preview, but there is a lot of subjectivity to that term). Certainly, one can argue that the effort gone into breeding tens of thousands of butterflies might have been more beneficial in, say, a conservatory or protective sanctuary, but this brings me to my next point: Mandalas seems like an odd place to start getting offended about alternate uses of physical materials.

Matty Mo and his duffel bag of 1 million dollars at Context Art Fair in 2017

Mandala critics have presented us with an oddly over-sentimental line of thought that might as well champion that the concrete used in a David Hepher painting have been used to build a refugee camp, or the expensive chemical and scientific research gone into developing the infamous World's Pinkest Pink or Blackest Black have been dedicated to cancer research. The material used to create art has not been wasted simply because it has been used to create art that offends your own ethical sensibilities concerning what it "could" have been used for; just because you would rather have made a necklace out of the lapis lazuli used to create the vibrant blue in Girl With Earring does not make the painting a bad or invalid piece of art. The one million dollars in cash carried by Matty Mo at the NY Context Art Fair were not adding to the economy of the world (ethical or otherwise) by being dragged around in a clear duffel bag - but that didn't make the artistic intent, message, and consequent discussion of the art less meaningful. The idea that Hirsts' messages about mortality or rebirth is "exactly what butterflies out in the wild are for" (Frankel) is utterly absurd. Ethical concerns about the harvesting of the insects (that, incidentally, can and do not feel pain) aside, it borders on the ignorant and critically irresponsibly to suggest that that there was no transformation by placing their wings on a canvas. A butterfly in the wild is not art unless presented as so, and one cannot help but wonder how many of these critics were really spending their days wandering around Horniman Gardens pondering their own mortality before (or indeed after) writing their articles. The removal, pinning, and presentation of the wings had fundamentally altered our perception of them, which by default creates new meaning: meaning you may disagree with, meaning that you may feel oversimple for such an extreme medium, but a new meaning nonetheless. To argue that the symbolic and physical transformation undergone by the material is invalid simply because you've spotted an opportunity to be an artistically contrarian ecoactivist is mindless and injudicious.

Disintegration - The Crown of Life (2006), part of the Kaleidoscope series

Furthermore, it is not "irresponsible" or "out of tune with [our] times" (Campbell-Johnston) to create art from and about nature during a time of ecological strife. If anything, it is more responsible to instigate discussion, as Hirst has done for years, most lately with his Kaleidoscope series - of which Mandalas is a part of. The White Cube exhibit is part of Hirst's much wider ability to manipulate and showcase the grotesque in aesthetically beautiful ways, and there are thought-provoking parallels to be drawn between Hirst' own body of work and the modern desire - and need -to find artistic beauty in political and environmental discord. To claim that we should not make art about (or from) the things that make us uncomfortable is boring at best and damaging at worst. Certainly, the aspects and messages of his work surrounding death and rebirth are perhaps overplayed, but the backlash and outrage caused by the Mandalas exhibit alone is enough to prove that it still resonates hugely - despite the rather snide and supercilious accusations of Hirst and his work's irrelevancy in light of the artist himself being "now sober, in his mid-fifties, and unable to shake the whiff of being spent" (Sooke). It is not "flagrantly commercial" (Campbell-Johnston) to have produced 18 rather than 1 of these works, it is an impactful method of communicating and continuing Hirsts body of work.

I am not arguing that everything is sacrificable in the name of art. There are lines to be drawn and limits to be respected, but Mandalas and its butterflies are an odd place to start (especially since Hirst has been using dead insects, birds, and animals in his work since the early 90s). One of the most arguably defining features of modern art is the ability and process of evoking strong emotions through unexpected mediums and materials, something that Mandalas succeeds at in every respect. Even if you do have ethical qualms about the wings, it is not more productive to think of their use as, perhaps, a commentary on the cyclical nature of consumerism? Or to draw parallels between the demise of their owners for the sake of aesthetics and the nature of life, death and beauty itself? Or to think of this blatant function of butterflies as a material no difference than paint of clay as a biting, nihilistic examination of... God, I don't know, anything, rather than to dismiss the entire exhibit as a purposeless "holocaust" or "genocide"* (Edward Lucie-Smith) just because you feel iffy?

Disapproval of material or method is not justification for the dismissal or disregard of the art that it is used to create. It is entirely possible to dislike and even condemn the ways in which art can be made while still being open to discussing intent and meaning. It seems purile and childish to dismiss Mandalas as worthy of being ignored simply because the art has created a personal dilemma for you to confront, and it seems cowardly and unfair to shy away from art like Hirsts' because it makes you feel uncomfortable. There is still merit to both the symbolism and the aesthetic of the work no matter your stance on the material used to create it, and it is far more valuable to let that stance enhance your opinion of the works, rather than erase it entirely.

Noble Cause, 2019

*I add, on a personal note, that I felt these words were utterly inappropriate and bordering on offensive to describe something as minor as a few dead insects, and while over-dramatic rhetoric will always be appealing to some, I encourage any and all art critics to adopt the sound practice of avoiding words usually associated with war crimes when reviewing small South London art exhibits.

Damien Hirst's Mandalas is free to visit from the 20th of September 2019 to the 2nd of November 2019 at Mason's Yard, White Cube.

Image credits: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy White Cube, Elite Daily