The Logic of the Disgusting:
Damien Hirst and the End of the Avant-Garde
“To say that art is not identical with the concept of beauty, but requires for its realization the concept of the ugly as its negation, is a platitude.”
A large, glass vitrine of rectangular proportions sits oblong on the bare, grey floor of the Saatchi gallery in London. It is divided into two equally sectioned cubicles by a glass panel with a small circular opening in the middle. In one compartment, on the floor, lay the severed head of a cow in the early stages of decomposition, teeming with maggots, with an electric fly-zapper hanging directly above. On the opposite side of the glass divider, a small, enclosed wooden box serves as a haven for the mating and regeneration of the newly-hatched flies, which then migrate back to the adjacent compartment to face the eternal choice: either continue to feed off the putrid nourishment or succumb to the ultraviolet attraction of the zapper.
Such is the cycle of life, Damien Hirst seems to suggest with this highly controversial installation, A Thousand Years, which made its debut in the Young British
Artist exhibit in 1992. But such also, I want to argue, is the life cycle of art. Although the “meaning” of A Thousand Years is famously elusive, I am inclined agree with art-critic
Michael Corris, though for reasons quite different than his own, that the central interpretive paradigm “is neither specifically political, social, nor moral, but, rather,
1aesthetic in nature.” My intuition is that the work is largely self-referential, a testament
1 Michael Corris, review of Damien Hirst, Artforum. Vol. 30 (January 1992), 96.
to the condition of the relation of art to beauty which, indeed, we are urged to reflect upon when putrescent animal parts come to be called works of art. Why is A Thousand
Years a work of art? Because, as I intend to argue, according to the logic of modern art, it must be so.
In Sein und Zeit, Heidegger describes the human life—the life of Dasein—as a
being-towards-death: a being whose very existence is phenomenologically projected toward its own end. We come into existence only to pass out of it, and any attempt to beautify this fact of existence would be not only futile, but false, inauthentic. This is also
the case with art. Like the flies that recycle life in a closed environment, the endless tableaux of genre concepts, definitional theories, and aesthetic conventions comprising art‟s existence are also ephemeral, and necessarily give way to new ones. Thus the concept of beauty in art is a being-towards-death. The original dissociation of art from beauty, inaugurated in the early part of the twentieth century by artists like Duchamp, introduced a new category into the aesthetic vernacular, which I call the concept of the anti-aesthetic in art. This concept, then, was characterized by an indifference towards
aesthetic beauty, for it suggested only that beauty was neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for an object‟s being a work of art. But as artists began to work under the conceptual paradigm, and the concept began to evolve and develop, the possible ways in which artworks could articulate the anti-aesthetic attitude would necessarily reach a plateau and began to diminish.
I say “necessarily,” since, if an aesthetic indifference to beauty reached a point of
stasis, then an affirmative repudiation of beauty was logically required if the concept of
the anti-aesthetic was a viable one. What makes A Thousand Years a great work of art is
that Hirst responds appropriately to a theoretical environment that had all but exhausted its conceptual possibilities. He intuited that works of art had to be disgusting. It is
therefore a category mistake to look for the “unexpected” or “hidden” beauty of such works. It is imperative that the work be seen as irrevocably disgusting, since it is
precisely the complete eradication of beauty from the work of art that signals the logical conclusion of the de-aestheticization of art. The only trace of beauty that remains is the logical residue of an aesthetic concept which has reached its end. With works like A
Thousand Years, Hirst says what has to be said—simply because it is all there is left to
say about the anti-aesthetic in art. The disgusting is the only remaining extension, the last avenue of development, the final word which renders anti-aestheticism conceptually bankrupt. In short, Hirst finishes what Duchamp began: he fully exhausts the concept of the anti-aesthetic in modern art.
The De-aestheticization of Art
An adequate account of the logic that underwrites the dissociation of art and beauty will have to begin with the enigmatic “anti-artist,” Marcel Duchamp. Of course, Duchamp
was certainly not the first to conceive art as independent from aesthetic beauty. Tolstoy, even in his day, had the remarkably progressive insight that
People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease
to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e., pleasure. The
acknowledgement of beauty (i.e., of a certain kind of pleasure received
from art) as being the aim of art not only fails to assist us in finding a
definition of what art is, but, on the contrary, by transferring the question
into a region quite foreign to art (into metaphysical, psychological,
physiological, and even historical discussions as to why such production
pleases one person, and another displeases or pleases someone else), it 2renders such definition impossible.
However, Duchamp was certainly the first to materialize this idea in the form of artworks. A series of ordinary objects—a comb, a bottle rack, a bicycle wheel, etc.—objects he
designated as “readymades,” were simply named woks of art by the artist. Among the
readymades of 1915-17, it is invariably Fountain which comes under intense
philosophical scrutiny as the artwork which ousted beauty from the context of art. Signed with the now-infamous pseudonym “R. Mutt,” Duchamp anonymously submitted
Fountain, a standard, industrially fabricated, white porcelain urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Despite the seemingly charitable motto of the exhibition “No Jury. No Prizes,” Duchamp‟s readymade was denied entry. Nevertheless, much to the chagrin of his contemporary aesthetes, Fountain gradually came to be recognized and
heralded as a genuine work of art.
It was, in part, the efforts of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who photographed the work shortly after its dismissal from the exhibition, that Fountain rose to the artistic
prominence that it did; the original urinal was soon lost, having scarcely been seen by anyone. But Stiegliz‟s efforts, I suspect, are also responsible for a common
misunderstanding concerning the aesthetic qualities of the object. Having positioned the
urinal upside-down, symmetrically, such that heavy, picturesque shadows revealed an unexpected grace in form, the photograph lends to a mistaken conception of Fountain as
a beautiful object. However, although Duchamp was famously elusive about the significance of Fountain, he was very clear that the readymades were not intended to be
2 “Art as the Communication of Feeling: from What is Art” in Critical Theories of Art,
edited by ? Adams (Harcourt, 1972), 63.
seen as aesthetically beautiful objects. Rather, they are chosen, Duchamp tells us, on a basis of “visual indifference, and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad
3taste.” If Fountain is found to be beautiful, it is only contingently so. What is so remarkable about Fountain s that it suggests, for the first time in the history of art, that an ordinary object could be a work of art irrespective of whatever aesthetic qualities it possesses.
Duchamp‟s nominalist gesture therefore neutralizes beauty with respect to works
of art, divorcing it from the concept of art itself. And by dissociating art from beauty, Duchamp affords art an autonomy which had never before realized. The conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth, assures us that “in fact it is Marcel Duchamp whom we can credit with
4giving art its own identity…” This independence from beauty, what I am calling the
anti-aesthetic attitude in art, opened up a rich array of conceptual possibilities that would motivate artists for almost a century to create works of art which were neither beautiful nor ugly, but which were made, as Duchamp envisioned, “on the absence of good or bad taste.” Thus, underlying many of the “isms” that comprise the span of modern art is this attitude of aesthetic indifference. From Dadaism to Cubism to Futurism to Minimalism, we find beauty relegated to a contingent, perhaps secondary, aesthetic quality of art. The indifference to beauty therefore served as a fundamental premise for many of the exploratory practice of avant-garde artists.
This is not to say, however, that an anti-aesthetic attitude became a pre-condition for an object‟s being a work of art, precluding any work of art which purported to be in
3 Duchamp quoted in Tompkins, Calvin. Duchamp: a Biography (New York: Henry Holt
and Company, Inc, 1996) 4 “Art after Philosophy I and II,” Studio International (October and November 1969),
reprinted in Idea Art, edited by Gregory Battcock (New York: Dutton, 1973), 80.
any way aesthetically pleasing. To do so would be to unjustly excise the works of artists like Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi from the repertoire of great works of modern art. Rather, it is important to see the anti-aesthetic attitude, not as the denial of, but as simply the neutralization of the sensuous qualities of beauty. This distinction will become
meaningful later. What is relevant to the concept, at least in the initial stages of its development, is the idea that beauty is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of art; artworks can be beautiful, but they by no means have to be to maintain their status as works of art. It is not until later, when the concept of the anti-aesthetic has reached full capacity, when it has been articulated to the point of near exhaustion, that the concept of it makes the ideological shift away from being merely indifferent to aesthetic beauty to being deliberately antithetical to it. It is this necessity, I want to argue, to which Hirst is
bound in creating A Thousand Years. The concept of the disgusting is a necessary stage in
the development of the anti-aesthetic attitude because it is that which is left to be said about the renunciation of beauty in art. But in order to understand the necessity involved, we must first try to unpack the logic underlying the conceptual development of modern art.
Progress Through Negation
Once art had come to terms with its own autonomy, it reached a point of crisis. With the loss of its foundation, Adorno writes, “it is uncertain whether art is still possible; whether,
5with its complete emancipation, it did not sever its own preconditions.” No longer
motivated to reproduce natural beauty mimetically in works of art, the artist lacks an
5 Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota Press, 1997), 1.
adopted standard by which the quality of artworks can be measured. Consequently, art becomes internal, self-reflective; the work of art becomes about the search for new self-
defining principles. Put simply, art becomes conceptually, not aesthetically, oriented. The content of the artwork comes to be expresses through the form as idea, as opposed to
purely retinal, aesthetic pleasure. For this reason, Adorno thinks that the autonomy of art calls for a renunciation of the “philistine division of art into form and content,” since in
6works of art the two are inextricably bound in infinitely complex constellations. What
makes modern art interesting is the realization that it consists of no static concept; it is dynamic because it refuses universals. Adorno nicely captures the paradoxical sense in which artworks achieve affirmation by virtue of their own denial.
Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus
become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber. Yet art is not to be
dismissed simply by its abstract negation. By attacking what seemed to be
its foundation throughout the whole of its tradition, art has been 7qualitatively transformed; it itself becomes qualitatively other.
The history of modern art therefore unfolds according to a logic of negation: the denial of one concept anticipates the concept by which it is superseded. Thus the anti-aesthetic attitude, as I have been calling it, arises in response to a conception of art that presupposes its connection to aesthetic beauty. It was, then, a denial of that association
which, when realized, “qualitatively transformed” both how art was made as well as how art was thought about.
Clement Greenberg, the notorious proponent of modernist formalism, understood the rationale of negation as a reductive process: modernism advances by gradually
dispensing with superfluous conventions until its concept is reduced to its bare, essential
6 Ibid, 147. 7 Ibid, 2.
constituents. But I am more inclined to agree with Jay Bernstein that “the very dynamic process of progress through negation that underwrites the vitality, rationality, and social
8significance of avant-garde art is progress toward art‟s extinction.” Again, art is a being-
towards-death. The process of “progress through negation,” as Bernstein aptly terms this phenomenon of conceptual development, denies the essentialism that Greenberg‟s modernism, or for that matter, any aesthetic concept is after. The vitality of art, rather, is premised upon its own death. It is driven by a dialectic of assertion and denial which means that the principle generating aesthetic concepts is at the same time the principle which guarantees their eventual exhaustion.
Thus we can begin to make sense of the theoretical conditions which allow us, or perhaps force us, to recognize A Thousand Years as an important work of art. Of course,
it can only be conceived as such if it is seen as the logical negation of a genre concept. Consider the concept of the anti-aesthetic as the set of all conditions which, in some form or another, take as their premise the schism between art and aesthetic beauty. In order to maintain art‟s vitality, it will have to proceed according to a logic of “progress through
negation” through the finite set of conditions that make up that that conceptual domain until each has been explored and exhausted. The initial stages of this process, as we have seen, are characterized by the neutralization of beauty in works of art. But the anti-aesthetic attitude would develop and go beyond the mere denial of beauty‟s ontological primacy in the evaluation of artworks. It would, in time, assume it most extreme expression: the direct opposition to beauty in the form of the disgusting. Thus A
Thousand Years marks the shift in art history from the neutralization to the complete
8 “Readymades, Monochromes, etc.: Nominalism and the Paradox of Modernism,” Diacritics Vol. 32 (Spring 2002), 93.
negation of beauty—for what could be more contrary to the concept of the beautiful than the disgusting? A putrid, maggot-infested cow‟s head in a glass box says more than a
porcelain urinal; it says not only “Never mind the beauty,” but rather, and more emphatically, “Just try to imagine this work of art as beautiful!” In this, Hirst says what has to be said in order to draw the concept of the anti-aesthetic to a close. The concept of the disgusting, therefore, is the final word on the de-aestheticization of art.
The Disgusting in Art
It would, or course, be absurd to suggest that nothing of an unattractive nature had been present in works of art prior to the modern era. The history of art provides clear testimony to the contrary. One need only to consider the gargoyles of gothic cathedrals, a scene in Bosch‟s Garden of Earthly Delights, or perhaps even a passage from Dante‟s
Inferno to see that the notion of the grotesque is nothing new to artistic representation. Indeed, examining the gruesome and unsettling details of Bosch‟s depiction of hell, one might be inclined to wonder why some rotten animal cadavers should enjoy any such proprietary status on the concept of the ugly in art. What, really, is the difference between
Bosch‟s work and Hirst‟s. Surely it is not merely a difference in media which distinguishes them, since, in principle, both painting and sculpture are capable of producing similar emotional or cognitive effects in us. Rather, what distinguishes them has to do, in part, with what Danto refers to in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace
as their “aboutness.” The ugliness of the work, in other words, plays an explanatory role in the meaning of the artwork. So, in either case, we must ask: “To what does the
grotesque subject matter respond?” The relevant difference begins to emerge between the
works we are considering as soon as we ask what the ugliness is about in either work.
We‟ll begin with Bosch.
As the title, The Garden of Earthly Delights suggests, Bosch‟s painting functions
as biblical allegory whose subject matter accordingly carries a deeply Christian moral connotation with it. Thus the gruesome depictions of human suffering are not aesthetically repulsive because they are connected to a morality that we find aesthetically redeeming, namely, the admonition that “the wages of sin are death.” Apologetic theodicy seeks to justify human suffering as a means of attaining the “beatific vision” of God. Something akin to this, I take it, is what Bosch‟s work is about. The work of art
itself is grotesque, one might say, but what the work is about we find aesthetically
gratifying nonetheless. Presumably, this is what Kant has in mind when he says that the mark of art‟s excellence is its ability to give beautiful descriptions to “things that in
9nature would be ugly or displeasing.” Thus, for Kant, even such awful things as “the
furies, diseases, devastation of war, and the like” can be very beautifully described or
represented in painting. This account holds true, I think, for many of the examples which we would be inclined to describe as ugly or grotesque. Each has an aesthetically redeeming quality about it which allows us to experience them as beautiful, even if not
Here, however, we must draw a conceptual distinction between the grotesque, in
which an element of the beautiful resides, and the disgusting, which Kant goes on to tell
us is the one kind of ugliness that “is incapable of being represented in accordance with
nature without destroying all aesthetic delight, and consequently all artistic beauty.”
9 Kritik der Urteilskraft (Hamburg: Meiner, 2001), ?48, 199.