Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hirst Pulls a Trigger

Damien Hirst’s diamond-covered skull, For the Love of God, is at once grotesque and beautiful, superficial and meaningful. However, before elaborating on these curious contradictions, it is paramount to stress Hirst’s ultimate goal with this piece; as he puts it, “I want people to see it and be astounded. I want them to gasp.” He relishes in the shock factor and aims to make a scene. Importantly, what astounds most of the viewers is the preposterous sum of money involved in the making and selling of the skull. The monetary aspect of the work becomes its main “raison d’être”. Thus, any meaningful interpretation of the piece is obscured amidst the commercial commotion, insinuating that the artwork itself is, lamentably, less impressive than its cost.

One could contend that the commercial aspect is significant and should rightly be the chief interest of the piece. It does, after all, explicitly illustrate the capitalist age we live in. Hirst spent an overwhelming sum on something seemingly trivial, as many others do in private. Only he did it boldly, shamelessly, and loudly. The audience’s response, in itself, reveals a consumerist society. We look at a skull, covered in 8,601 diamonds, and what primarily resonates is the cost. Although the skull functions primarily as a symbol and embracement of the capitalist art market, it possesses mocking- though not necessarily condemning- undertones towards consumerist society.

For the Love of God engages with superficial notions of beauty and their ironic relationship to death. To paraphrase a quote, before the making of the skull, in I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Hirst criticizes humans for excessively caring about their complexions since they are ultimately destined to decompose into skulls. This futile preoccupation with appearance can readily be applied to his piece. The symbol of our death stares straight at us, yet due to the striking diamonds that adorn it, the violent image of death is instantly appeased. The diamonds function as a mask, a farce that embodies the shallowness that Hirst cites earlier- we stride through life embellishing ourselves only to reach our doom. Indeed, as one observes the skull and its unsettling smile, the diamonds shine in all their glory; they deepen into the crevices of the skull’s sockets as if in two eternal chambers, mocking our death, for we will perish, those polished teeth will eventually rot, and the diamonds will live forever.

However, it is important to note that skulls have become an icon in the fashion world and that diamonds are prominent symbols of conspicuous consumerism. Although Hirst claims that he was inspired by Aztec skulls, he evidently borrowed two popular items from mass culture that in turn make the criticism detailed above uphold little effect upon the viewers. Considering that the skull image has been obsessively used in contemporary fashion, we have accordingly become indifferent to its inherent pathos.

For the Love of God manipulates the skull with diamonds like a fashion item, so that it appears more as a commodity and less as an actual human remnant. Ironically, for someone so invested in the theme of death, Hirst employs the one symbol that no longer strikes his audiences with the idea of death. In some of Hirst’s other works he conveys the subject of death more effectively. In the past he has explained, “you have to find that universal trigger. Everyone’s scared of glass, everyone’s scared of sharks. Everyone loves butterflies.”[1] If the skull is to function as a “universal trigger,” it triggers the face of consumerism. But maybe that was his intention, after all.

[1] Hirst, Damien. I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now

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