In Praise of Damien Hirst’s Verity
Pregnancy is a perennial theme in contemporary figurative sculpture. Remember Ron Mueck's Pregnant woman 2002? Or the controversial Alison Lapper Pregnant, a white marble sculpture by contemporary artist Marc Quinn that was on the empty plinth in London’s Trafalger Square in the late 00’s? The fact that the pregnant subject of Quinn’s traditionally carved sculpture was born without arms and with shortened legs caused a media sensation.
Now Damien Hirst’s Verity has been installed at the seafront of Ilfracombe, a sleepy Devonshire seaside town whose harbor is lined by ice cream and tea shops, causing journalists and art critics to froth at the mouth that the gentle British public should be exposed to a sculpture of a naked pregnant woman, slashed open to reveal her fetus, with the peeled skin of her flayed breast uncovering the tender tissue within.
I’m intrigued by the outrage caused by Hirst’s piece. The brouhaha is entirely superficial, having its roots either in the simple fact that it’s a work by Hirst, who is no stranger to controversy and of whom shock-value is expected and indulged in, or that the woman has been dissected, which is unusual in 21st century public art.
But when we get past the sensationalism and hyperbole to look objectively at Verity what do we really have? It’s a sculpture of a pregnant woman whose body has been opened up on one side to reveal the anatomy within it, including her unborn baby; she’s holding up a sword in one hand while the other hand holds an imbalanced scale behind herback; she’s standing upon a pile of law books. She's clearly the figure of Justice, albeit sans blindfold.
While Hirst's piece clearly and emphatically stakes its claim as an allegory of social injustice with it’s underscored themes of pregnancy, the unborn baby, the mother, clamoring the rather obvious fact that there's a major social issue about justice for mothers ofunborn children, I’ll be very surprised if the artist expresses a strong point of view about abortion in his interviews, being a man who likes to stir the pot but avoids drinking the soup. I’m sure he’ll let other people hash out the moral issues of abortion, birth control and so forth, because the sculpture is really about the issue of injustice for women in itself, not about taking aside in it. In this case the dissection of the body is a slap-in-the-face-obvious indication of its roots in deconstruction – the body is literally taken apart; and like so much 20th Century art it indicates the wrongs of the world but offers no leadership toward fixing them, offers no ideals for us to aspire to.
But I don’t want to fall into the easy, seductive trap of pointing fingers at the sad old art of the last, (thankfully) past century. I think this is one of Hirst’s few truly significant works, after his notorious pickled shark, because it indicates a new period in art history that I think is tremendously exciting.
When Alison Lapper Pregnant was installed I remember being pleased that although Quinn’s sculpture continued the 20th Century’s long and depressing celebration of brokenness, it emphasized the craftsmanship and quality of traditional marble carving.
“Verity” is similar, but this magnificent work goes much, much further – regardless of Hirst’s past body of work, regardless of its social justice subject, Verity represents the first time in a long time that a sculpture using allegorical symbolism to express meaning has become the news media’s sensation. That its roots are in nineteenth century ecorches, which were (and still are) used in traditional studios to teach anatomy underscores its reach back into the past.
That unborn baby's daddy is allegorical symbolism. Verity is Hirst’s acknowledgement that the allegory is a revitalized and powerful tool in the armory of figurative art.