Damien Hirst has recently unveiled a new series of his ‘butterfly-wing paintings’ and the internet is ablaze with debate
The point has been made loud and clear: killing butterflies for the making of art is unethical. I can subscribe to that view; I understand where it comes from. But what strikes me as unprecedented about the recent criticism is its superficiality: the lack of acknowledgement that most artworks in our museums are smeared with countless animal deaths. From this perspective, Hirst’s works are nothing new.
Watercolours are mixed with ox gall, an extract of bovine gall bladder, and tempera with egg. Sepia, the reddish-brown favourite of life drawing, is derived from the ink sac of the common squid and many other pigments rely on pulverised insects to provide us with the brilliant and subtle hues used in paintings. Canvases, meanwhile, are sized with rabbit skin glue. And ferrets, squirrels, and hogs are killed to make artists’ brushes.
The main difference between these animal deaths and Hirst’s geometrically arranged butterfly wings lies in the artist’s honesty. His work reveals how the achievements of art have depended on our willingness to sacrifice the lives of animals. Or perhaps more disturbingly, Hirst shows us that aesthetic beauty can derive from so-called acts of cruelty towards animals and nature. How do we come to terms with our sense of guilt with all this, at this point in time?
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