Damien Hirst has recently unveiled a new series of his ‘butterfly-wing paintings’ and the internet is ablaze with debate. Butterflies, dead or alive, have appeared in the artist’s work since the late 1980s and he has produced very similar paintings to the ones now exhibited at White Cube in London since the mid 2000s. These works have always, to some degree, attracted criticism from vegan and animal rights groups, but the latest response – on Twitter, in letters to the Guardian and in a review by Times art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston – seems more widespread. A sign of the times perhaps: our growing awareness of climate change, and of the sixth great extinction (entirely caused by us) currently underway.
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. As a scholar who specialises in the representation of animals and plants in art, I have dwelt extensively on the cases in which the creatures themselves are involved – on the beauty and the horror. 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?
It is worth noting that butterflies have long been celebrated in human culture. Hirst has also killed countless flies in his work, but nobody cares about the death of flies because we associate them with waste, death, disease, and decay. In fact, a whole industry is devoted to their extermination. Yet, from the perspective of biodiversity conservation, flies and butterflies are equally essential to the wellbeing of this planet.
More importantly, the butterflies Hirst used to create the works currently on view are farmed and not caught in the wild. In 2003, the artist became the biggest importer of exotic butterflies in the UK. His dried butterfly wings are purchased in bulk from farms in the tropics, where a thriving industry had been established to curb the illegal butterfly trade that has destroyed many ecosystems around the world. (When live chrysalises have been required, such as for the restaging of his installation In and Out of Love at the Tate in 2012, UK farms have been used.) The Victorians were far from the last butterfly collectors and rare specimens of certain species, which poachers collect using deadly insecticide bombs, can fetch up to $30,000 on the black market. The farms that breed Hirst’s butterflies support the environment and have dramatically reduced habitat destruction by providing poachers with legal and regulated work and by establishing thriving tourist economies in areas that desperately needed an economic boost.
We can of course still agree that killing animals in the name of art is unethical, and that art involving the visible deaths of animals undermines the importance of their individual lives. That certainly is a valuable perspective and one that entails a serious rethinking of our relationship with nature – something which can no doubt be done through conversations about contemporary art, as long as we don’t rush to quick conclusions.
Giovanni Aloi is the editor of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, and co-editor of the University of Minnesota Press series Art after Nature.