The 'Poster Child' vs. the 'Enfant Terrible'

In order to demonstrate the extraordinary latitude provided within the category of eco-art making, I selected two artists who represent polar extremes of this endeavor. A consensus of opinion clusters around each. One is highly respected for pursuing noble causes and creating uplifting visions. The other attracts contempt for being a publicity seeking opportunist whose works are merely calculated for shock value.

The ‘Poster Child’ is Andy Goldsworthy. He has earned status as a poster child because his work serves as a prominent example of a righteous cause - the refinement of human sensibilities that are in tune with the visual splendor of nature. His art is universally acclaimed as ‘beautiful’.

The ‘Enfant Terrible’ is Damien Hirst. He has earned notoriety as an enfant terrible because he indulges in startlingly unconventional behavior that disturbs most and enrages many. Hirst engages gruesome subjects like morbidity, putrefaction, decay. His sculptures are often denounced as loathsome, the opposite of beautiful.

Andy Goldsworthy (born 1956 in England) creates stunning photographic images that evoke the optical magnificence of the natural environment. Instead of recording happenstance occurrences, he summons his craftsmanship and ingenuity to compose the images that serve as the subject matter for these photographs. Nonetheless, he is embraced as an eco artist because his studio is outdoors (streams, forests, shores, fields, etc), because his medium consists of organic or mineral components discovered within these environments (actual twigs, ice, petals, snow, leaves, and stones), and because his tools are scavenged from the resources found on site (feather quills, thorns, reeds, water, or the artist’s own spit).

Goldsworthy’s works are site-specific. Climate, season, and weather determine all but one of the aesthetic ingredients in his works of art. Composition is exclusively of his own devising. “Soul of a Tree”, for example, was generated by applying the natural adhering capability of ice to ice as it begins to melt and then refreezes. Goldsworthy harnessed this force to prod icicles into an implausible form. His icicle is a slim serpentine spiral that encircles the thick dark trunk of a tree. The form defies gravity and is too precarious to be ‘natural’. The scene was staged to create a gorgeous, two-dimensional image that celebrates human willfulness more than nature’s wonders. One privileged instant of visual perfection precedes the icicle’s inevitable demise. As in all his works, his constructions must survive just long enough for the shutter to be snapped. Then they can be claimed by time and the elements and revert to their status as normal leaves, grass, sticks, ice, and rocks within an ecosystem. It is the artist’s ordering efforts that made them intelligible as works of art.

Damien Hirst (born in 1965 in England) created a work entitled A Thousand Years” (1990) that became a sensation in the infamous “Sensation” exhibition that launched the careers of a hot young brood of British artists. The work presented the festering severed head of a cow infested with flies and maggots. These grizzly elements were installed within a steel-framed, glass-sided 7 x 24 x 7 foot vitrine that was divided into two compartments. One side showed the cool formalism of Minimal art; it contained a white cube with a portal opening on each side. The other side held the rotting remains of the cow head. An eerie blue light bathed this macabre scene. It originated from a ultra-violet fly zapper suspended over the cow’s head. These compartments were home to swarms of flies and maggots that mated and gave birth in one cubicle, and feasted and died in the other. Viewers encountered rotting flesh, glass walls stained in yellow fly excrement, and shriveled fly corpses heaped beneath the zapper.

Sensationalism is evidence that a taboo has been violated. The hysteria surrounding ‘A Thousand Years’ provided evidence of society’s lunatic denial that matter decomposes. It is no wonder that people were revolted. The artwork presented irrefutable evidence that hamburgers are actually slaughtered cows and by eating dead animals we are behaving just like maggots. Hirst exposed the squeamishness that accompanies decaying organic matter and the reasons why - it isn’t pretty and it smells foul. Ecologically, however, there is no reason to fret. The eco system provides a fastidious clean-up crew: turkey vultures, carrion beetles, maggots, and fungi. These ecological ‘sanitation’ workers savor the mess and recycle it through their digestive tracts, liberating elemental materials that can now contribute to a new life form. Hirst’s sculpture manifests death’s role in the regeneration of life, a vital ingredient in the health and longevity of eco systems.

The two artists use opposite entrances into the arena of eco art. Hirst accepts the entirety of natural processes, including rot and decay. In this manner he defies the prejudices that derive from a culture that immunizes citizens against the truth of our mortality and physical degradation. By accepting messiness and unpredictability, he presents the truth. Goldsworthy, on the other hand, isolates the pretty part of the cycle and banishes evidence of other half - sustenance, growth, evolution, interaction, productivity, complexity, fluidity, putrefaction, and death. By contriving picture-perfect constructions, he presents beauty.

Truth or beauty? Viewers are free to determine which approach fosters sensitivity to the functioning of ecosystems and concern for the well-being of the environment.