Damien Hirst has done it again – art hitting the headlines – and achieving what he seems to love most – the limelight. You have to hand to him i suppose. This time he’s unveiled a £50 million work, with £12m-worth of diamonds encrusted into a human skull he bought at a junk shop. Hirst called it For the Love of God and said of it:

“it is uplifting, takes your breath away. It works much better than I imagined. I was slightly worried that we’d end up with an Ali G ring… You just want it to be flawless, like a diamond is a flawless. We wanted to put them everywhere. They go underneath, inside the nose. Anywhere you can put diamonds, we’ve put diamonds… I wouldn’t mind if it happened to my skull after my death.”
The artist said that he was inspired by an Aztec turquoise skull at the British Museum, and hopes that his work will eventually be displayed at the institution.

What’s more, the White Cube gallery at which he’s exhibiting in north London is selling limited edition prints that he has made of the skull, of which this is one. There are 5 images he’s made, and they have surprising names:

  • For the Love of God, Pray
  • For the Love of God, Believe
  • For the Love of God, Shine
  • For the Love of God, Laugh
  • For the Love of God, The Diamond Skull

Quite intriguing, really. A human skull is the classic symbol for mortality in art par excellence. Of course, the title is not exactly an expression of piety, more a clichéd cry of desperation – which is perhaps appropriate in the face of our mortality. Hence the first two titles of the prints – PRAY and BELIEVE. Our post-atheist age is crying out for the divine and more-than-material world. Mortality has always been the thorn in the flesh of a truly atheistic worldview because we all have within us a deep-rooted yearning for something else beyond.

Near the end of his life, the great existentialist-atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre told Pierre Victor – “I do not feel that I am a product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” Protested fellow philosopher and long-time companion, Simone de Beauvoir: “How should one explain the senile act of a turncoat?”
And yet some time before this point, Sartre had said: “That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget.”

This is not to say that Hirst has come to this position – the 3rd and 4th prints suggest that he is taking up a more resigned approach – in the face of mortality, all you can do is SHINE in the present, and LAUGH as you face the future. It is a ‘let’s make the best of a bad job’ approach to life. As one of my favourite summaries of our postmodern world puts it: it is NIHILISM WITH A SMILE. And what better symbol could one want for this than a skull – surely it is the fact that a skull appears to smile which is their most unnerving characteristic.

But mortality is still one of Hirst’s obsessions. After all, we all remember the infamous Tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde, made in 1991 and famously bought by Charles Saatchi

But do we remember it’s title: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living? And of course he is right. The shark looks real and alive in its suspended animation. But it is not – it just just an illusion. Death is somehow completely unphysical – we can’t get our heads around it. And more than that – mortality is clearly something that worries Hirst – and he wants us to be worried by it as well. And rightly so. His works of art are profoundly troubling. I’m completely guessing here – but i wonder if he chose diamonds as some sort of glittering preservative in response to what happened with the shark. For the formaldehyde is ok but not brilliant – the tiger shark has recently been rotting and deteriorating. At least diamonds, being the hardest known substance, don’t rot. And they sure do look better than formaldehyde. No wonder Hirst would prefer to have his skull covered in £50m worth of diamonds than a tub of formaldehyde.

There is of course still a flaw. When Hamlet realises that the skull he has in his hand is that of his old friend Yorick, the Court Jester, he rages at the grim realities of death:

Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? (Hamlet, V.i)

For a skull is a skull – dead and unable to respond. Whether it is covered in diamonds or not.

Hirst’s name will live on – but he won’t. Nor will any of us. However much we cover the fact up. We don’t like that much. Woody Allen was interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph in 2002. The article noted:

We’re all born astride the grave but surely he has a form of immortality through his films. ‘Yes but as I have said before, it would be nice to live on in the hearts and minds of my audience, but I’d rather live on in my apartment.’

I couldn’t agree more. Except for the fact that the grave is not the end – and there is an answer to life beyond – which does not lie in art galleries, but on a cross…

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Francis Meynell

    Thought-provoking post, Mark, thank you. Am surprised you haven’t commented on the last print, ‘For the Love of God, The Diamond Skull’, which suggests to me that he made the thing as an offering. Nice offering – when you can sell it… Curious to learn of your thoughts on this. For a lovely picture of the future in an art gallery, take a look at http://picturepost.wordpress.com/2007/06/01/ways-of-seeing/ Also, have you seen the film, 21 Grams, based around the idea that our bodies lose 21 grams in weight when we die; if true, what is it that disappears to explain this decrease in weight? I’d be interested to look at a copy of your talk on art and postmodernism that Mum and Dad attended, if possible.

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