Dumping the Shark: Why Taking Hirst’s Money Isn’t Selling Out

Laurie Penny’s “A Shark in a Tank is No Use to us, Thanks” points to the problems of authenticity as purity in counter culture. While few people would argue that Damien Hirst is a great artist, except perhaps the misguided patrons of his work, we might argue that accepting his money ought not present a problem to the student protesters Penny describes.

The Issue

As governments realize they’re overextended and try to preserve themselves by curling back, many people affected by their retreat begin to protest. In the UK, this includes students whose education is traditionally subsidized by the government. Penny points out that “single mothers, disabled people, public-sector workers and the mentally ill,” whom The Young British Artists overlooked when they offered to pay the fines of student protesters, rely on the government for their well-being, and deserve money as well.

Penny argues against the “vampirism” of money-making interests, who are indeed trying to “capitalize” the energy of student movements by providing them with capital. Their willingness to do so is almost certainly an attempt to restore legitimacy to their “edginess,” which Penny artfully depicts as placing the “shark” of counter culture in formaldehyde.

Which would be fair, if counter culture were in any way a “shark.”

Identity and Authenticy

The protests are an important cultural playing field in which many things, including the identities of the resistance, will be decided. While Penny suggests that she just doesn’t want “rich idiots” dabbling in edginess to decide the fate of the protests by only supporting the sexy side of the movement, it seems more like she doesn’t want to lend legitimacy to bad art and irony.

In most cases, I’d say more power to her. The personal is political, and problems of identity and legitimacy matter. But identity and authenticity are not what makes this “the only honest-to-god counter culture this country has seen for a generation,” it’s the cause. Rich idiots pollute the aesthetic of a pure class struggle, which would lend authenticity to a counter cultural identity diminished by ironic consumption.

Irony: Excess as Rebellion

“My best bet at reclaiming control over myself is to take all of this crap that they’re shoving down my throat and make it mine.”

Excluding wealthy liberals from participating in the class struggle on the side of the people mitigates the authenticity that struggle provides the counter cultural identity by pushing it back into the same aesthetic realm as ironic consumption.

 

Compromise.

Irony’s amorality (it funnels money to the producers of the kitschy crap it appears to mock) and defeatism seems crass in contrast to counter cultural movements that champion authenticity. Still, its message is an important one in the study of resistance: “I exist in a place where restistance is truly futile, and my best bet at reclaiming control over myself is to take all of this crap that they’re shoving down my throat and make it mine.”

Penny’s resistance to handouts intended to “mock the government” comes from a similar place. She refuses to give in to capital, which dehumanizes protesters or cleans up resistance for easy consumption. This stance is absolutely fair, but in this context it does more to “other” the protesters than it does to make this truly a movement of the people.

We can all agree that Damien Hirst is a pollutant. His participation surely defiles the aesthetic of authentic resistance. But by keeping him out, you’re sanitizing the messy business of the good fight.

And keep fighting she should! There’s a lot in this post that I want to write about (i.e. the role of irony in rebellion), so let me know what you think I should focus on next. Do you think the students should accept or reject money from the YBA? What can we do to make our own movements and ideologies? Share this article and join the discussion below.