Last week I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's modern wing, where pride of place goes to Damien Hirst's stuffed shark:
called, swear to God, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living."
Being a truculent old crust, I'd rolled my eyes at this one from reading its first description. "He put a big shark in a tank?" I'd said, "And somebody paid big bucks for that? Are there no VFW halls where art collectors come from? No taxidermists?"
Seeing it, I'm a convert. Here's why: The shark looks like utter crap. There's a hole through one fin with stuffing coming out, and the others (used to hold the nylon thread supporting this thing) not much better. The eyes look like they were rejected from a Godzilla movie, and the mouth of the thing is painted a pasty white. The skin is worn. Really, it's more beat up sofa than swimming shark.
And yet -- the object holds people longer than anything else. Men in their early twenties talked about how you'd need to punch the shark in the eye if it swam at you. An art student photographed it on the sly, and another woman had to be dragged away by her boyfriend.
The response, together with the utterly crap condition of the former shark, play well with the title: It's the spectators that are alive, and they are treating this extremely dead object like it's a vital creature. The proof of the title is right there before you.
Modern art is journalism -- it points at the world, making statements about it so we notice things again for a moment -- and this is actually a successful example.
Still don't like his damn boat to the Tate Modern though.