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.