Visual Arts

Damien Hirst: Bling or Bomb?

When curators or academicians talk one-on-one with artists, the result is sometimes an exercise in futility, as two different temperaments use two different vocabularies. But as a witness to several artists talking with one another . . . it’s an organic swirl of artists’ names from past and present, local and faraway, with a reference to contemporary theory and a sharing of secrets from the studio.

I have had opportunity to be such a witness and, with “ARTISTIC TEMPERAMENTS,” hope to be an instigator by asking three artists to respond to the same question drawn from current events in the art world.

British artist Damien Hirst, best-known for animal carcasses in vats of formaldehyde, recently produced and then sold the highest priced “new” work of art in recorded history – a platinum skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. “For The Love of God” sold to a consortium of investors for over $100 million US dollars (see article). What do you think?

The following are answers from Adam Bateman, Jim Frazier, and Steph Parke:

For the Love of God by Damien HirstAdam Bateman
“For the Love of God” by Damien Hirst could have only been platinum encrusted with diamonds. Anything else – glass, cubic zirconium, pine nuts – would have lacked integrity and would have diminished the meaning of the work. This is certainly the most significant work by one of the most influential artists alive today.

The controversy over the sale price is unfortunate as it distracts from the importance and meaning of the work. Like the best art and literature in history, this piece is at once a beautiful object and has many levels of meaning: personal, art historical, literary, political, economic, religious, spiritual, and aesthetic. Poor Yorick makes a cameo as Hirst cites Hamlet (Shakespeare) and in one object asks questions about eternity and death and life and life’s purpose. He comments on current political issues by forming Blood Diamonds into a symbol of death. Even as he does it, he is wracked with the guilt that he has made something so valuable that people might die over it (and may already have). He takes an ironic jab at the commercial bent of the contemporary art world by using a skull, a symbol constantly found on the bookshelves of the learned and in the classrooms of doctors and young art students and encrusting it with diamonds, adding material value to artistic value, simultaneously making a fortune for himself and making fools of those who are taken with the over-consumption of the art world that supports him. As he does so, he elevates the history of art and the entire Western Tradition.

Suddenly, all of Western Culture is not only for sale, but ironically symbolizes its own demise. He parallels our attempts to understand ourselves and our history – our attempts to preserve our own history – with our obsession with death and overcoming it through mummification, embalming, resurrection, through inheritance (think the Crown Jewels), and grave markers. He references, parodies, celebrates, and criticizes Western Religions’ approaches to death and afterlife. He also unifies all of his past work in one piece that can be taken in quickly, in but a moment, and if we as viewers aren’t blinded by the diamonds, the piece will remain for many lifetimes in our minds and art history books; though this isn’t the immortality we humans try to achieve for our dead, nor the one Hirst parodies with this version of Yorik. Remember; diamonds are forever . . . and they’re a girl’s best friend.

Tezcatlipoca maskJim Frazer
It’s easy to see the resemblance between Hirst’s diamond and platinum skull and artifacts such as the Tezcatlipoca mask, a human skull lined with leather and inlaid with turquoise in the collection of the British Museum. (see article) Since Hirst says he was influenced by such objects, one wonders if this was the example he saw. The purported influence of the Mesoamerican turquoise inlaid skull, though, really seems more like one of several attempts to legitimize by association what would otherwise be seen as simply outrageous bling.

Hirst’s cavalier attitude toward the implication of his work is exemplified by his comparison of himself to Robert Oppenheimer because of the possibility that the skull might contain so-called “blood diamonds.” It could be argued that Oppenheimer did not realize until that apocalyptic moment in the desert the full extent of what he and his team had done. It could be said (as some of them did say) that they regretted their part in bringing the planet closer to mutually assured destruction. But if any of Hirst’s diamonds are “blood diamonds,” if any lives were lost as the result of his creation, one gets the sense that they are just water under the bridge on the way to the creation of an icon that exists somehow at the nexus of pop and high culture in a refined world of celebrity and high security which is oblivious to whatever conflict may be occurring in Africa.

Oppenheimer could argue (despite legitimate disagreements) that he was trying, at least statistically, to mitigate loss of life. Hirst can only say, “Death is such a heavy subject, it would be good to make something that laughed in the face of it.” In this light, his comparison of himself to Oppenheimer seems not just shallow, but an attempt at co-opting the angst of a generation of nuclear fears in the service of the creation of an object whose admitted purpose is to make light of the most serious subject possible.

Steph Parke
Uh, isn’t this Indiana Jones’ next adventure? The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?

I have a real problem with outrageously priced art. I understand that there are people in the world who have more money than they know what to do with, so they spend it on crazy-expensive bling, er, art, but just think how many under-privileged kids could benefit from the $100+ million that was spent/wasted on this skull. Or think of how the nation’s public school system could benefit, or our health care program, or…

I compare this type of thing with the space program. That’s a lot of money that could be better spent elsewhere.

So, what do YOU think? Take advantage of 15 BYTES blog to post your thoughts.

Categories: Visual Arts

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