Thought for the Day - Rev Lucy Winkett

The news that in the souvenir shop at Tate Modern, a replica of Damien Hirst’s famous diamond skull will cost you £36,000 will seem incomprehensible to the vast majority of people who are worrying in these straightened days about fuel prices, benefit levels and the cost of keeping the family show on the road.

As an artist, Damien Hirst, once the enfant terrible of the art world, has often made works that comment on the commercialism of modern life, and when the art itself becomes fabulously expensive, it contributes to the commercial dynamic of hype and backlash that characterises a society where selling and buying has become arguably the defining activity of our culture.

The retrospectives not only of Damien Hirst but of David Hockney at the Royal Academy and of Lucien Freud at the National Portrait Gallery are hugely popular. They may also reveal another theme apart from the seemingly recession-proof art market. When the queues are so long to see what critics have called the “joyous” portrayals of East Yorkshire by Hockney it seems that a significant number of people want to seek out experiences that will move us, even overwhelm us, awaken our sensibilities and appreciation of what is not ordinary. These artists, although very different from each other, are all contemporary too; showing the rest of us our world as they see it – inviting us to look for new perspectives, unusual colours, singular expressions, that will give us back our eyes, interrupting what we think we know we see.

Until the 17th century, art was not thought of as separate from craft, religion or science; these human activities were all of a piece, practised by those with a sense of adventure, the spiritual, emotional and intellectual explorers of the world. And it’s perhaps a sign of our times that the polarisation of these disciplines has lead often to a false separation between the provable empirical “facts” of natural science for example and the intuitive responsive sensibility of the artist. This separation and reduction happens in religion too; when the whole person is not taken into account and faith is diminished to a list of sentences to assent to, rather than a desire to awaken our spirits and learn to see afresh the realities of life, death, beauty and suffering in the world of which we are a part.

Whoever buys the diamond souvenirs may well be taking part in an ironic comment on the commercialism of 21st century Britain; but whatever the motivation, I want to refuse to be cynical about the fresh perspectives that artists keep alive for the rest of us, even if I will never be able to afford them.

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