|To Olympic Spectators, London offers
Grin of Death
Not the Gospel of
An Empty TombVishal Mangalwadi
Olympic visitors, curious to get some insight into Britain’s former greatness, are likely to visit both St Paul’s Cathedral and Tate Modern facing each other across the Thames. The Tate, next door to Shakespeare’s Globe, currently dazzles visitors with 70 of Damien Hirst’s artworks depicting the finality of death. Until June 25th the Museum’s chief attraction was his diamond-studded skull grinning at death. The artist (b. 1965) calls that sculpture For the Love of God. That phrase used to be his mother’s cliché. Since Hirst is an atheist, “God” may mean the god of money – Mammon.
Like the Buddha, Hirst takes death seriously. The former closed his eyes to suffering in order to meditate his way to inner bliss. Hirst forces visitors to open their eyes. His 1991 artwork, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. It compels the living to contemplate the “impossible:” their own death.
Hirst’s exhibit surrounds Death with science, medicines, and surgical tools, deliberately mocking his mother’s absolute faith in medicine and her contempt for art. The viewer gets the point: Science prolongs suffering and delays the inevitable. Since art does not even delay death, how does Hirst want us to understand death? What should we do about it? Why do we yearn for life, love and eternity?
In his 2006 exhibition at the Hilario Galguera Gallery in Mexico, Hirst made it clear that he follows the nihilism of Nietzsche (1844–1900). The exhibit was called The Death of God, Towards a Better Understanding of Life without God aboard The Ship of Fools.
Nietzsche realized that since western intellectuals had killed God, there is no one left to give meaning to life.No one can explain death or save us from it. So, for Hirst, the death of God leaves us no choice but to pretend to be Overman (Ubermensch) and defy death with a grin . . . at least through art. Art becomes a kind of Olympic sport, in which modern-day heroes defiantly exhibit their prowess and skills while they can, knowing that death will have the last laugh at all of our expense.
As Britain’s richest Overman-artist, Hirst has encrusted a life-size platinum skull with 8601 diamonds. To my Indian eyes, the crown of this £14 million skull looks like the Third Eye of Shiva – our god of destruction. Its annihilating gaze is now focusing at the West. Hirst invites patrons to chuckle and say “To hell with death” with a skull now prized at £50 million.
Hopefully, a preacher will remind visitors that, much earlier than Nietzsche, the cathedral had a famous Dean who also mocked death. Nietzsche once wrote, “whoever would kill most thoroughly laughs,” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part iv, “The Ass Festival”). But centuries earlier John Donne had written:
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so, . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
Donne (1572–1631), the poet and Member of Parliament, began as a lawyer and womanizer. But his earnest spiritual quest led him to priesthood and to St. Paul’s Deanery in 1621. Donne’s defiance of death was in turn inspired by the father of Christian Europe, St. Paul, who wrote “Where, O death, is thy sting? Where, O death, thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
The Apostle Paul also began his public life poorly. He was a religious terrorist then known as Saul. He proactively supported Stephen’s stoning. If the stoning were not brutal enough, Stephen’s unexpected response should have shocked Saul’s conscience. For, as Stephen stared in the face of his death, he saw the deeper dimension of reality. He exclaimed to his murderers, ‘Look, I see heaven open and the [crucified and risen] Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55–56).
That supernatural source of life was incomprehensible to Saul’s infuriated community. They thought it was impossible that through his resurrection Jesus had triumphed over death and its root – human sin. Their assumption that death, not a living God, was the final reality forced them to believe against all evidence that Christ’s empty tomb must mean that his disciples had stolen Christ’s dead body. Unable to believe in the finality of life, Saul made killing the mission of his life. He was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christ’s followers when
“Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do’” (Acts 9:3–6).
Saul’s first-hand encounter with the resurrected Christ transformed him into the Apostle Paul. The Lord Jesus later sent him to Greek rationalists who, like today’s skeptics, had given up all hope of knowing truth. Paul shared with them the ‘Gospel’ – the good news – that in exchange for repentance of sin, God was offering eternal life to sinners doomed for eternal death. (Acts 17)
City after European city mocked Paul’s Gospel. He was imprisoned, whipped, stoned and almost killed. Confident of his own resurrection, Paul sought neither mystical bliss nor material comforts or physical security. He endured unjust suffering to begin Europe’s transformation into a culture of life.
Hirst’s message is the opposite. Visitors can see it in his three-dimensional artwork Mother and Child Divided. For Indians who venerate cows, this piece is as shocking as ‘Madonna and Child Divided’ might be for a Roman Catholic.
With amazing precision, my culture’s sacred cow and its calf are dissected from head to tail. Their four parts are displayed in two glass cases each and ominously affirm Europe’s post-Christian culture of death.
Is it too shocking to describe Europe as sinking into a culture of death? Finality of death cannot but breed fatalism, whether it is called karma, inshe-Allah, or chance. For what is chance? In a mechanistic universe, every effect has a sufficient cause. Atheists call something chance only because they do not know the cause of a particular event. In reality they believe in total determinism. There is no soul which can transcend matter and act as a First Cause. Determinism is Fatalism and Fatalism saps a culture’s optimism and energy. It is faith that overcomes the world. In his creative work A Thousand Years (1990), Hirst uses the blood flowing from a cow’s severed head to lure flies to their death. This imaginative piece, that separates art from beauty, reminds the viewer of the pagan, non-humanistic, idea that for gods or chance, humanity was no more valuable than flies:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport.
(Shakespeare, King Lear)
Nietzsche was right- having killed God, the West has no option but to separate art from beauty. It has to kill all notions of real Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. That is what made it possible for Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) to take a common urinal made by someone else and display it as “Modern Art.” If there is no God then beauty has nothing objective about it. Art is what I say it is. That was Tracey Emin’s point when she put up her unmade and messy bed as a work of art in Tate Modern (1999). It is “beautiful art” simply because she says so, and art museum exhibits it, and visitors come to view it.
Likewise, without a Creator life is an accident. It has no intrinsic meaning or goodness. We give value to some life selectively. That is why no one needs Hirst’s art to see the West’s culture of death. It is inherent in abortions that contribute to Europe’s unsustainable demography and economy. The cultural elite honors abortion as “pro-choice,” while the rest of us can only see resignation. A healthy young mother expresses her fatalism when she says, “If this child lives, I cannot possibly have a good life. I am too helpless to give him decent life.”
Traditional British heroism would be to say: “My current situation is hardly ideal to bring this baby into Europe’s uncaring, individualistic culture. Yet, I will find grace to be delivered from my selfish culture. I will make whatever sacrifice has to be made to give my helpless child a chance to live and live well.”
Such was the death-defying culture that Paul’s gospel created in Europe. Those who really wish to understand the secret of Britain’s earlier greatness should go around the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral and visit the Postman’s Park. Its 50+ plaques celebrate ordinary English people who made heroic choices to try and save someone else’s life. David Selves of Woolwich was 12 when he chose to support “his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms”. William Donald of Bayswater “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”.
These Englishmen overcame fatalism because the Apostle Paul introduced to Europe a life-giving crown that was richer than Hirst’s diamond skull. As Isaac Watts, another Londoner who followed Paul and refused to conform to his culture wrote:
When I survey the wondrous cross . . .
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
(Isaac Watts, 1674–1748)
Damien Hirst has initiated a necessary conversation. He is right in a profound way, which his nihilism cannot comprehend. As John Donne affirmed, through his sacrifice and resurrection, Jesus has triumphed over death. It will indeed be thrown into hell (Revelation 20: 14). The “Tree of Life” will, once again, become accessible to Adam’s children (Revelation 22:2). That Good News makes it sensible to deny ourselves, take up our cross, choose the crown of thorns, and defy death in favour of another life.
Like Israel’s songwriter King David, Bill and Gloria Gaither also walked through a terrible “valley of the shadow of death” in the late 1960s. Everything seemed to have fallen apart when their broken lives experienced the resurrection power in answer to a simple prayer of faith. Out of that life-changing experience in July 1970 flowed this life-giving song:
God sent His son, they called Him Jesus
He came to love, heal, and forgive.
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, All fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives.
(Vishal Mangalwadi, the author of The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, is on a private retreat in UK. He is reachable via www.RevelationMovement.com, Facebook, and firstname.lastname@example.org. By phone, please contact Amaris Davis at 07759142981. This article was inspired by art historian Nigel Halliday’s L’Abri Lecture, “Of course it’s art – exploring, defending, and critiquing the work of Damien Hirst”.]