Little Glass House of Horrors: Taking Damien Hirst Seriously

  • Gene Ray
Part of the Studies in European Culture and History book series (SECH)


No one can deny that Damien Hirst worked hard to make his reputation as the leading enfant terrible of the so-called yBas. Whatever one thinks of him, Hirst—whose institutional ascension was made a foregone conclusion by the “Young British Artists I” exhibition in the Saatchi Gallery in London a decade ago—does not lack talent, energy, or ambition. His latest provocation, however, was weak and not at all impressive. His stunt of congratulating, on the first year anniversary of September 11, the perpetrators for having created a “visually stunning work of art” backfired and was followed, a week later, by a meek retraction and apology. 1 Hirst’s artistic production does contain at least one work of significant disturbance. That work, A Hundred Years, from 1990, was again on view at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg as part of “Blast to Freeze,” a large survey exhibition of twentiethcentury British art mounted in the fall of 2002.2 By his own account, Hirst tackles the big themes of life and death. Given that the attacks of 2001 and the subsequent (and continuing) perpetual preemptive “war on terror” have purportedly reminded us that “the real” can reach us even (or especially) where we believed it had been banished, the time is right to question Hirst’s work and its sensational effects. The sublime hits, but the cheap thrill merely bothers.


Culture Industry Glass House Gallery Space Gallery System British Artist 
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  1. 3.
    Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s (London: Verso, 1999), hereafter cited by page number in the text. See also the essays in Stallabrass, Duncan McCorquodale, and Naomi Siderfin, eds., Occupational Hazard: Critical Writing on Recent British Art (London: Black Dog Publishing, 1998).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Theodor W. Adorno, Letter to Walter Benjamin, March 18, 1936, in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics, translation Ronald Taylor, translation ed. (London: Verso, 1980), p. 123. In the letter, Adorno criticizes Benjamin’s essay “The Artwork in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility.” Adorno elaborated his notion of the “culture industry” largely in opposition to Benjamin’s attempts, following Brecht, to read a different political force in the technological reduction of the autonomy and prestige of traditional bourgeois art. These debates were subtler than their constant and obligatory invocations in critical writing today generally indicate, however. For example, Brecht and Peter Suhrkamp’s 1930 notes to The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany already contained in kernel a theory of the culture industry: “Values evolve which are based on the fodder principle.” Brecht, “The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater,” in John Willet, ed. and trans., Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), p. 34.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Verlag, 1969), pp. 133–4; in English as Dialectic of Enlightenment, John Cumming, trans. (New York: Continuum, 1998), pp. 125–6.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Herbert Marcuse, “Über den affirmativen Charakter der Kultur” [1937], in Schriften, vol. 3 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979); in English as “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” in Jeremy J. Shapiro, trans., Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon, 1968).Google Scholar

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© Gene Ray 2005

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  • Gene Ray

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