Sharks and Other Aesthetic Objects

One virtue of conceptual art is that it doesn’t require you to go out of your way. Painting or sculpture or even video make you interrupt your plans to attend galleries or museums, often in far away places, like the west 20s. Freed from its reliance on the object, conceptual art can achieve its aesthetic effects at quite a distance. I can read or be told that Damien Hirst has decorated an entire room like a pharmacy and I’ve pretty much gotten the concept in my mind. I can then use the time I might have taken to go to the exhibit on other things, like reading eighteenth-century novels or lifting weights. All of which makes the afterlife of Hirst’s notorious shark in a tank of formaldehyde from 1991 slightly amusing. Billionaire hedgefund manager Steven Cohen recently purchased the piece only to find the shark in an advanced state of decomposition. Of course, Hirst had little interest in the permanence of the object, which was after all only a way of conveying an idea. The concept endures even as the object decays. Try to explain that to Mr. Cohen.