Got their fame in the early 1990s, the Young British Artists (YBAs) is known as a group of highly publicized British avant-garde artists active from the late 1980s (Chilvers, 1999). In this research essay, the works of two leading artists of the YBAs, Marcus Harvey and Damien Hirst, will be mentioned and analyzed within the context of postmodern theories. The evident postmodern characteristics being discussed in the four art pieces is pluralism.
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Marcus Harvey (1963-now) is an English artist and painter and a leading member of YBAs; his pieces cited and analyzed in this essay are Myra (Fig. 1) and Toilet Roll (Fig. 2). Both of the two paintings are the representation of an object with blurred lines and pieces, seemingly as if the macro images are composed by tiny units and sections. The composition of the paintings and the fuzzy impressions has largely corresponded to the meaning of pluralism in postmodern theories.
Damien Hirst (1965-now) is a close friend of Marcus Harvey, he is the most prominent member of YBAs and most of his works focus on the theme of Death (National Galleries of Scotland n.d.). In this essay, two of his works being analyzed are the painting LSD (Fig. 3) and the sculpture For the Love of God (Fig.4). In these two art pieces, LSD is constructed using a grid of dots of different colors while For the Love of God is consisted of human skull, platinum, and diamond. These pieces illustrate how single elements can produce new meanings when being composed together or re-arranged, similar as Harvey’s works, these art pieces are also a reflection of pluralism in postmodern viewpoint.
In postmodernism, the word pluralism is generally used to describe the multiplicity of meaning and the status of a mixture and disorder (Bohman 1999) of culture, identities, ideologies, worldviews, religions etc. in postmodern era, it embraces the idea of fragmentation or incoherence in contemporary world.
Pluralism is literally defined as “the quality or state of being plural” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010), which is in contrary of “dualism”. As we learned from the course, pluralism within postmodern practice is not only apparent within its political content but also in the strategies, processes and the styles within the works themselves. Looking back to all the theories and argumentations on postmodernism, it is easily observed that the common ground among all the discourses is to admit the chaos, disorder, fragmentation, and even meaningless of any subject – from my perspective, the balance of “disorder” and “order” is a representation of what we called pluralism.
Doubtlessly, pluralism has become a dominant tendency in every aspect of modern life in the backdrop of globalization and commercialization tide. According to Milbrandt (2003), the characteristics of postmodern world have directly triggered the emergence of popular culture and postmodern art forms such as visual art, on the other hand, conceptual barriers between so-called high and low culture have broken down due to the evolution of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). In one word, to study today’s artistic creations in turns of different postmodern characteristics, such as pluralism, will provide us a comprehensive understanding of postmodernism theories as well as postmodern lives/practices.
Speaking of the arena of art, more specifically, the YBAs, those conceptual artists, painters, sculptors and installation artists are noted for their shocking and creative tactics in making art; and as reported by The Guardian (14 June 2000), they dominated the art scene in Britain during the 1990s. By analyzing the four works I cited in this essay, I hold the viewpoint that as typical Young British Artists’ works, those art pieces from Marcus Harvey and Damien Hirst have notably demonstrated and reflected the qualities of pluralism.
Myra (Fig. 1) is one of the most famous and disputed works by Marcus Harvey, it is the portrait of a child killer Myra Hindley recreated from multiple copies of children’s handprints. In this artwork, numerous children’s handprints seem to cover and claw at Hindley’s face and shape a unique situation: on the one hand, the image of her face is composed by those handprints; while on the other hand, those tiny palms also obliterate her features. It is commended by The Guardian Weekend (Burn, 1997) that this artwork brings “the chill of horror we feel but can rarely express” and suggests the “coolness – that is, the affectless-ness; the loss of sensation; the stray; the cold stoniness – in the work itself.” Connecting it with postmodern theories, one can easily catch the smell of pluralism in Myra. As Hughes (2004) and Knoper (2008) summarized (though the idea is originated from Lyotard), postmodern art represents the death of so-called meta-narratives maintained in modern society and adopts pluralism to replace dualism, thus create a sense of chaos and disorder in meanings. Such is what we read from the controversial artwork Myra, in which the tiny units are both creating and destroying the whole iconic image, based on this, varied and more in-depth meanings are conveyed.
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Toilet Roll (Fig. 2) is another artwork by Marcus Harvey and from which we can also find evidence of pluralism. Ang (2006) points out that, the status of pluralism and the imitation of an existed style lead to things like pastiche (an empty copy), which is an idea that suggests little of the implied depth. Toilet Roll the painting is a reflection of such “death of depth” – I personally don’t think the image in this artwork conveys much aesthetic delight, nor it is as meaningful and thought provoking as Myra. However, when we look at the fuzzy images and small blocks in the picture, a sense of meaningless and confusion is generated in reader’s mind. In other words, from my perspective, no/little value or meaning is the meaning of this work.
LSD (Fig. 3) by Damien Hirst might be the one among the four artworks that represents “pluralism” most apparently and directly: a grid of dots of different colors, a simple mixture of plural elements. Similar to many postmodern paintings, one cannot easily grasp what the artist wants to express in this painting. Villeneuve & Erickson (2008) point out that contemporary art cannot be judged simply by whether they are representational or attractive, and contemporary artists tend to use unconventional materials and touch difficult topics (such as sexuality, patriotism, and religion), which all present obstacles in understanding. So as to LSD, readers can have numerous interpretations to the grid of dots from varied perspectives. Those perceptions express the complex and different cultural backgrounds and social identities of the appreciators as well create the “multi-dimensionality” in interpretation (Song, 2009), which reveals a broader pluralism beyond the painting format itself. Besides, the interdisciplinary mediations and analysis (Trafí-Prats, 2009) of contemporary art also reflects the spirit of pluralism (i.e. the interpretation of LSD may touch upon the field of music, political science, cultural studies, religious studies, etc.).
For the Love of God (Fig.4) is a sculpture by Damien Hirst produced in 2007, it consists of human skull, platinum cast, and 8,601 diamonds (Hirst unveils £50m diamond skull, 2007). Besides the value of the material itself, the artistic value of this sculpture is also precious. George Steiner (2001) claimed in his book Grammars of Creation, the age such as ours is an age of ugliness – the “violence, oppression, economic enslavement and social irrationality”. And this artwork For the Love of God shows a hope for beauty in this age of ugliness and death and is a restoration of respect for God (Moore, 2004). The materials used in this sculpture are shock, contrasting and creative, and when Hirst constitutes the skull, the platinum, and the diamonds together, they successfully create new meanings with sharp impacts – such is an aspect of pluralism, that the single distinct elements can produce an organic whole.
In conclusion, all these four art pieces analyzed in this essay is a good demonstration of pluralism in postmodern context. As artistic works created by British avant-garde artists in the post-1990s era, they successfully used some tactics and gimmicks to produce and convey what I would call “a sense of nonsense” and “a sense of confusion and shock” to the audience. It is not surprising that all the works can easily find a niche in postmodern interpretations, not only because they were produced in the context and with the idea of postmodern thoughts, but also because we are trying to read them from a postmodern perspective.
Nonetheless, although it is hard to elaborate in details what aesthetic feelings or experiences they create to audience, because each individual has his/her own judgment on artistic (especially postmodern artistic) works and also because postmodern fine art is often anti-aesthetic, it is still possible to reach a better understanding of them besides the sense of “nonsense, confusion and shock”. From my perspective, those works in general expressed the artists’ concern on the spurt of modern technology, industrialization and commercialization, as well as the loss of meaning and depth in postmodern way of life, which are the eternal focuses of all forms of postmodern fine art.
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