The Brooklyn Museum of Art, as if persuaded by its own ill-advised publicity that the art in its “Sensation” show might endanger the welfare of its viewers, at first thought it prudent to turn away children under age 17 unless accompanied by an adult. It ought instead to have turned away adult viewers unless accompanied by a child, preferably one well under 17. Children are not squeamish, nor capable of indignation. They giggle at things that make adults uneasy. They do not carry a burden of art history, so they will not dismiss things on the ground that it has all been done before. They are not cynics, nor are they “taxpayers.” And they exist on the same level of feeling as do many of the artists in this extraordinarily youthful show. So borrow a child if you don’t have one–or better still, be your own child, and treat the exhibition initially as if you were making an expedition to FAO Schwarz. There is, surprisingly given the title of the show, no sex to speak of, though there are some oddly distributed penises that the child will find hilarious. Whatever may be said on the floor of the Senate, it really is art. Whatever has been said in City Hall, it is not sick. It is, on the contrary, healthy. The worst that can be said of it is that it is brash. It is the brashness of art students the world around. There is an exuberance, a confidence, a swagger unfortunately not to be found in the demoralized American art world of today (for explanation refer to the floor of the Senate and the offices of City Hall).
The first work you will encounter, dominating the first gallery of the show, is a real shark in an immense tank. The child will gasp at the majesty and beauty of a work it would have been difficult to anticipate from photographs of it or from descriptions or representations on the Internet. The artist is Damien Hirst, effectively the chef d’école of the post-Thatcher London art world. Putting a huge fish in a large tank of formaldehyde sounds easy enough for even a city official to do. But imagining doing it requires a degree of artistic intuition of a very rare order, since one would have to anticipate what it would look like and what effect it would have on the viewer. The work in fact has the power, sobriety and majesty of a cathedral, some of which, of course, must be credited to the shark itself. It does not look preserved but as if it rests in its fluid medium ready to strike. Hirst is given to florid titles (as well as to rude and silly ones): This work is called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. It is a very philosophical title, which goes perfectly with the work itself. Heidegger pins his entire philosophy of authenticity on the difficulty of envisioning one’s own death–a difficulty Wittgenstein explained by saying that death is not an event in life, not something we live through.
The child, having registered the shark and emitted its admiring “Wow”s, will want to press on, pulling you away from the metaphysical reveries in which Hirst’s work has entangled you. There is, after all, more to experiencing art than what the involuntary “Wow” implies. (Being your own child simply helps keep you open to what you see–it will not enable you to understand what anything means.) The show, like any, is almost always more than mere sensation, and the works of art more than toys for the rich. You have to function simultaneously as child and adult, and it is to the credit of the art on view that “adult” does not mean “mature enough to deal with sexual content” but “wise enough to respond to philosophical significance.”
Let us at this point tour the first gallery, which serves as a prologue to the show you are about to see. To your right as you enter the gallery is a large painting (156 inches by 126 inches) of a woman’s head. It is titled Myra. The child will have but a modest interest in the work until it discovers that the paint resolves itself before our eyes into a pattern of tiny handprints. Wow. The child resolves to give this a try in her next art class. You, hypocrite lecteur, will see it as a kind of knockoff of Chuck Close, especially a painting he once did of his mother-in-law using fingerprints. Close’s fingerprint painting is a virtuoso performance, but the fingerprints play no role to speak of in relation to the content of the portrait. The subject of Myra, however, is Myra Hindley, a notorious and reviled child-killer. That makes it difficult not to see the tiny handprints as referring to her victims. (In Britain, the painting is seen as a greatly enlarged police photograph rather than a distant derivative of a format Close has made his own.) It was Myra that was detested most when “Sensation” was installed in the Royal Academy of Art two years ago–as if the wickedness of the subject were transferred to her effigy in paint. It was Myra for which a Plexiglas shield had to be made, Myra that was declared sick by right-thinking Londoners. Brooklynites, unfamiliar with British headlines, give the painting an aesthetic once-over and pass on to the next work.