On the Use of Animals in Contemporary Art: Damien Hirst’s “Abject Art” as a Point of Departure

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Department of English, NTNU


Contemporary artists inclined to integrate animal elements into their works previously justified animal art as a means of reframing thought about life and ethics. But it is debatable whether the juxtaposition of animal and art is simply a gimmick. Damien Hirst’s animal installations, for example, have garnered both widespread acclaim and controversy. Do Hirst’s displays of animal carcasses amount, at best, to so-called “abject art,” or does the auratic perception they evoke serve to catalyze reflexive thoughts on ethics? Investigating Hirst’s animal works, this paper not only seeks to arrive at a better understanding of his oeuvre but also discusses the function of animal death in contemporary art. In the first two sections, Lacanian gaze and Benjaminian aura are drawn upon to explore whether eye-catching art is particularly thought-provoking and more likely to stimulate ethical thinking. The third section inquires into whether some of Hirst’s works are capable of evoking the auratic gaze; and if so, under what conditions do those works cease to be auratic and become abject? The last section compares the works of Hirst and Mark Fairnington to investigate how the auratic gaze emerging from artwork propels us to confront questions of life and ethics without remaining silent on the theme of animal concern.