Challenging Established Practices

Art Strategies / Week 1 / Comparison of Three Modern Artworks

The following post presents a case study of three modern artworks, of how they challenge conventional practices, and how they are separated in time but interlocked in ideas. The study also derives from the critique presented in the Introduction, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of A Very Short Introduction to Modern Art by David Cottington.

– Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, by Vincent Van Gogh (winter 85-86)
– The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, by Damien Hirst (1991)
– Self, by Marc Quinn (1991-present)


Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in the winter of 1885-1886. The painter was presumably attending classes at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts (source), where skeletons were used to study anatomy. The general understanding is that this painting was a quip at the conventional practices that were employed at art schools. Another theory says that the painting alludes to Vincent’s poor health ( stomach ailments and rotting teeth) and his defiance in physical suffering (source).

Taking both interpretations into consideration, while the painting challenges conventional practices, it does not venture outside the methods of the time (craft as art, as Cottington notes in the book). The painter also raises questions around existence, and paints a picture which presents life in death. Interestingly, Van Gogh smoked a pipe as he lay on the hospital bed after shooting himself (the injury subsequently led to his death).


Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is a thought-provoking piece when combined with the title. Hirst clearly represents the inevitability of death and the impossibility of comprehension of death by someone living. However, what’s interesting is that instead of creating a painting or a sculpture, he uses a dead 13-feet shark suspended in formaldehyde to exhibit his idea. He challenges the conventional methods, and at the same time succeeds in engaging the audience ( through disgust, fear or philosophical contemplation).

The shark eventually decayed, and had to be replaced by a different shark.


Marc Quinn’s Self is an ongoing project, wherein he sculpts his own portrait in his own frozen blood. The technique is morbid, sure. However through the use of blood, Marc questions existence and longevity. His idea behind sculpting a new piece every five years or so was to record countenance and aging ( inevitable, same as death ). The Scientific American quotes “By crafting these heads out of his own blood, Quinn reconnects us to the the fact that in the fullness of time, no artist’s attempt at immortality through self-portraiture will prevail. And of course the series will presumably end in the course of the artist’s life, so the artwork’s time-dimension has a death of sorts as well.”

It is an established idea that art outlives us. Whereas, here are two artists (Hirst and Quinn) who have created installations that challenge this idea. And then, there is the use of a dead shark and blood as the medium. In an age that is defined by pop culture and mass media, shock value is instrumental in garnering the desired level of attention. And besides the underlying philosophy, shock value explains the use of these mediums.

The three artworks present some form of life in death. Through the use of morbid themes, they emphasize the inevitability of death and/or question the durability of art.

2 thoughts on “Challenging Established Practices

    1. I sort of cheated on that one. The painting wasn’t mentioned in the readings, actually. But it’s one of his earliest works, and I love it.

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