A Plague of Jolly Rogers

Damien Hirst and “For the Love of God”

Or, What Damien Hirst’s £50 million skull means to me.

I must confess to never really being compelled by Hirst’s morbid insincerity. When I first saw his suspended calf and sheep, “Away from the Flock” and “Child Divided” in Art Forum in the early 90s, I was repulsed. At the time, I was involved in animal rights quite seriously, but also there was something about his glib approach to suffering that put me off. Now that I live in England, I understand them in a new way, as a comment on an English pastoralism that’s now clouded with the nightmare of foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Both catastrophes saw the countryside marked with massive burial pits for livestock.

Of course, if one thinks hard enough about something, one can find meaning. This doesn’t make the something art. While I’m usually up for the carnavalesque sensibility conceptual art often offers, I definitely won’t be queuing for tickets to see For the Love of God.

And who’s skull is it anyway? Some poor 18th century sod whose remains ended up in a London taxidermy shop. Apparently Hirst funded the making of the skull himself, which cost over 26 million to make– assuring the public that the diamonds are “conflict free.” In the most facile sense, the skull is a comment on the “you can’t take it with you” cliche. Ultimately, we’re all meat to Hirst, but a few of us have deep pockets, and this is his universe. When I see pictures of him, I just think “slick, cruel dork.” It makes sense that at this time in history someone so culturally impotent would be rich and famous. I’m sure some people think he’s laughing all the way to the morgue, but the only thing I resent is that his deteriorating body of work will continue to be foisted on us, and eventually it will be his own deteriorated body which will become spectacle. Mark my words– there are probably some obscene conditions in his will: his head in a vitrine, set upon by maggots and flies. Instead of A Thousand Years it could be called Fifteen Minutes.

Perhaps in For the Love of God, Hirst finally admits he’s not only mortal, he’s an art-history faddist stumbling after the zeitgeist. I ask you, how many skulls have you seen this week– on cereal boxes and kid’s sneakers, in the windows of H&M and New Look, on movie posters and chapstick and candy? You can’t walk a foot down the high street without being confronted by a skull on something, usually pink and intended for consumption by a 13 year old girl. Pirates are everywhere, and perhaps it’s fitting that Hirst would choose the most played of images to break the bank. He is a pirate, after all.

He’s not the first to decorate a skull– skull oracles, Aztec skull mosaics– Hirst has acknowledged their influence on the current work. But there is also Hirst’s contemporary, Steven Gregory, to consider. Gregory has been creating bejeweled skulls for some time now. Hirst actually wrote an essay for Gregory’s Skullduggery show catalog, and owns many of Gregory’s skulls.

And this is not the first time Hirst has merely taken someone else’s genuine product and turned it into a high-priced stunt. Stuckism, an anti-conceptual art movement, has argued that Hirst stole the idea for his shark vitrine from Eddie Saunders, “fish artist” and electrician who displayed a very similar shark in his Shoreditch shop window years before Hirst paid someone to catch a shark for him. Unlike Hirst, Saunders caught the fish himself. Stuckism’s photos of both works side by side make quite a convincing argument.

The Guardian quotes Hirst as being satisfied with the final object: “To me it seems gentle, quite soft,” he said of the skull. “I would hope that anybody looking at it would get a bit of hope, and be uplifted. We need to line the world with beautiful things that give you hope.”– proof of either his profound disingenuousness or his own numbskulled delusion.

12 thoughts on “A Plague of Jolly Rogers

  1. Thanks for writing about this – I somehow cannot seem to coherently put words together about it.

    The one thing about the “information space” that surrounds this piece that keeps itching at me is the “conflict free diamonds” bit. I cannot fathom why Hirst, or his people, felt a need to make that a key part of the press release. It just drives me crazy.

  2. Thanks fo reading. I completely agree there are bizarre elements to the “information space” as you put it. The supposed anonymity of the skull, for instance, really bugs me.

    I seem to recall reading earlier interviews where Hirst was hedging his bets with the diamonds and talking about “blood diamonds” as part of the death theme. It is the press release, not Hirst who is emphasizing the diamonds are “conflict free”? It really takes the Brit lifestyle politics obsession (carbon footprint measuring, fair trade marketing, etc.) to a completely absurd level. Is your £50 mil gegaw really ethically sourced? It’s stupid.

  3. More joy on the Hirst front. The potential sale of this old bit of bone and carbon aside, a piece of his just became the most expensive ever sold at auction (£9 million). Jasper Johns remains the most expensive living artist, period, one of his pieces sold at $80 million a while back.

  4. Which piece sold for £9 million? Was it the “A Thousand Years” one?

    I just read this on Art News: “an eight-inch-long plastic skull covered with bright enamel, spin-art style, is £25,000 in an edition of 20. Three different silkscreen prints of the skull, shown in three-quarter view and measuring ca. 40 x 30 in. — and sprinkled with diamond dust — are £10,000 each in editions of 250. Moving towards the bargain basement, a silkscreen print of the skull measuring about 13 x 10 in., published in an edition of 2,000, is priced at £900. And several different posters for Hirst’s exhibition, picturing the diamond-covered skull, are £30 each, as are several t-shirts imprinted with his skull image. Many of the editions become available on July 7, 2007.”

    FOR THE LOVE OF GOD souviner shop. Death disco ball tat, all of it.

  5. No it was his cabinet piece. I think it’s a druggist’s cabinet, or something. Couldn’t you just deal with your local plastics shop, your butcher and a Kmart to make your own “A Thousand Years”?

    In my last trip to SF, I peeked into his SF gallery and there were a bunch of large skull prints on view, as well as some pill stuff, what looked like a community college-level cast skull piece, and some kind of print that was a commentary/diagram on nuclear capable states that had its facts wrong. It was like a gift shop for people with meaningless lives and too much money to spend.

  6. “We need to line the world with beautiful things that give you hope”

    Uh, right, Damien – not these 50 million dollar art turds.

  7. Marshall– if you want to make a DIY Thousand Years, don’t forget the insect-o-cutor! Do they sell those at K-Mart?

    The stuff at the SF gallery sounds positively pathetic. Is he as big a deal in America? I like to imagine he’s like Kylie Minogue– super massive over here but a nobody in the US. I’m wrong about this though, aren’t I?

  8. That’s why I mentioned Kmart – I figure, that’s where the “kind of people” who use bug zappers probably shop. Maybe there or Costco. It would be nice to knock the whole thing off at WalMart, but I’ve sworn an oath to the Brothers of Saint Francis never to enter one of those again.

    He’s not really a big deal in LA. He just opened a show here recently, and it got a bit of obligatory coverage, but it has zero “LA Art World” buzz, at least as far as my ears are concerned. I have no idea what his sales are like here, but I imagine he’s doing well enough – art buying at the top of the market seems to be 50% crazy passion and 50% need to fit in, which guarantees a lifelong income to any hack to get the kind of attention Hirst has had. Really, the whole YBA thing didn’t really have much of an impact on Los Angeles. Their names don’t really drop much here, at least not in my circles.

    I don’t think the American art establishment, especially the curatorial and art writing establishment, really goes in much for “shock art” anyways. I really think we have a much healthier intellectualism here in America – it’s tempered by both our “Wild West Individualism” and strong anti-intellectual streak.

    All of that being said, I don’t necessarily dislike his art. He’s done some stuff that’s got strong aesthetics, and had he taken a more hedonistic and elitist position on “For the Love of God”, I might have loved it. As it is now, I see it as a little dickless. I can’t really see his (or anyone else’s) work being worth the money people are paying for it, but I don’t have tens of millions laying about to really understand the motivation behind the economics of the art world.

    I tend to interpret British Art through a particular lens. I view British rock in the same vein – how hard can it be to get noticed in a country where the population and media is so centralized? A band or artist in Britain can get exposure across the whole geography of the country very quickly, and then make the immediate jump to international exposure.

    In America, artists and musicians have to do way more work to rise to the top, and the environment is a dozen times more competitive. Add to that the almost total lack of government support for the arts at home, and you’ve got a much more Darwinian environment than most European countries have. I’ve just managed to vastly oversimplify my theory on the prominence of British art and music, but that’s the general idea.

  9. Not to dwell even longer on this, but I found this priceless quote in NY Times article that I found on Modern Art Notes.

    A black T-shirt with an image of Damien Hirst’s notorious platinum skull set with 8,601 flawless diamonds has become something of an art-world uniform this summer. Collectors and dealers could be spotted in it all over Venice earlier this month during the preview days of the Biennale. Visitors wore it last week at Art Basel, the annual contemporary art fair in Switzerland, and it is turning up in London as well.

  10. Ok, Marshall, if this is true, I guess irony really is dead. Well, not dead so much as hooked up to a big respirator-cash machine.

  11. Irony has been dead for years – I believe that The Simpsons beat it to death. My theory for the past 5-6 years is that we’re living in the age of “Zombie Irony” – a sort of mindless appreciation for irony, regardless of the meaning.

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