“For The Love Of God” by Damien Hirst is not art, it’s ethically dubious for various reasons, its costing is suspect, the big jewel on the forehead spoils any claim it might have to aesthetic interest, and it’s basically a simple reversal of the usual formula of blinged up teeth in a living skull.
Ceci n’est pas l’art
More interesting is why it isn’t art. An overheated art market assigns and justifies the price of a piece of art as the measure of its worth. It doesn’t matter how materially impoverished the art is, it can be some rags with oily earth scraped on stretched over some pieces of wood and still be worth tens of millions of dollars. This is the point of the market for those who buy. They are doing with art what they did with hedge funds. This is ritual, the economic becoming the symbolic, aesthetic mythology being made into economic icons. This is the assertion of a new class’s self-image and a rearguard action against any newer money. That is what high art usually is.
“For The Love Of God” has catastrophically misunderstood this. It seeks to justify the economics of the market economically. It is an object that has been ridiculously expensive to manufacture and is therefore worthy of a ridiculous price. This doesn’t give the market anything to do. If Hirst wanted to give the market something to really get its wallet out for he should charge 100 million dollars for one of his concepts, or for each of an edition of 100 skulls, or for a genuinely awful painting (his assistants can crank those out by the dozen). That would take some serious dollar transubstantiation.
The argument that Hirst and his business manager are just taking the market for a ride, Jasper-Johns-two-beer-cans-style, doesn’t work. And Hirst’s move here isn’t a Stella-like aesthetic observation of the letter of the law rather than the spirit. It is an erroneous error theory of the market value of art made into an artwork.
A limited edition is available of silkscreen prints of a photograph of the skull complete with diamond dust applied to the glaze. Those American commentators who dismiss Hirst as a Koons copyist don’t have an interesting point, but this is pure Warhol. Warhol produced silkscreens of a skull and of himself with a skull. The images over which he sprinkled diamond dust weren’t his best work, the cash value added by diamond dust is an implicit admission of the lack of aesthetic value.
With Dead Head
This is Hirst’s contemporary self-portrait. He is no longer gurning fearfully next to a decapitated head, he has taken its skull and made it a model of his own. There is no contrast between this empty sparkle and his own flesh and bone. The spark has gone, his head has been emptied of what art it contained and replaced with economics.
There is no aesthetic or emotional value in a multi-million dollar memento mori, it is a self-defeating object. All that remains under the bling is the crooked yellow smile. This used to be Damien Hirst. There is the ghost of a tragedy here, but the materialism of economics leaves no place for ghosts.