Friday, October 22, 2010


British artist Damien Hirst secured international headlines when three years ago he sold a diamond-encrusted human skull for 50 million British pounds (US$100m, AUD$123m then).

Titled For the Love of God, the skull cast in platinum from an original skull of a person who lived in the 18th Century, is encrusted with 8601 diamonds, the largest of which Hirst says cost around 4 million pounds.

It is touted as the most expensive ever made, and fetching the highest price for a new work, and both claims would appear to be true.

In an interview with broadcaster David Dimbleby, Hirst revealed that the total cost of the diamonds was around 13 million pounds. Add a few million for the platinum skull and peripherals, and you have a possible return on the work of around 30 million pounds.

But as Matthew Collings continually asked in his renowned Channel 4 series, This is Modern Art, “mo’ern art, wha’isit?” A lot of other people ask the same of Damien Hirst’s work, many recoiling at the vulgarity of the sums involved, at the subject matter, and at a perceived brashness of personal style.

Hirst came to prominence as doyen of the YBA, the British Young Artists, the so-called “Brit Pack”, that ambushed the art world in the 1990s with confronting installation works. He was born in Bristol, and studied art at Goldsmiths College in London, graduating in 1989. During his college years he befriended and worked with other up-and-coming artists such as Angus Fairhurst and Sarah Lucas, who would later achieve renown.  They began exhibiting their works in a rundown warehouse in the Docklands in the late 1980s, and despite criticism of them as shameless self-promoters, they attracted the attention of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, who began purchasing their work, and later assembled a major collection. 

Hirst’s most famous pieces from the early and mid 90s include The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - a dead tiger shark in a steel and glass tank of preserving fluid, and Separated From The Flock - a woolly lamb presented in a similar manner. 

Mother and Child Divided, consisting of four glass tanks with the severed halves of a cow and its calf, won him Britain’s major art award, the Turner Prize, in 1995. 


Hirst went on to achieve similar fame and notoreity when his works were exhibited in the US, although the media star of the Young British Artists Sensation group show in 1999, turned out to be fellow YBA alumnus, Chris Ofili. His Holy Virgin Mary, of a black Madonna with elephant dung over one of her breasts, led to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attempting to close the show down, which inevitably only increased its notoriety, and queues. 

Another Brit Pack luminary, Tracey Emin, grabbed headlines when she was shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize for her work The Bed, an installation of an unmade bed with a scattering of underwear, cigarette packets and condoms beside it. Although she didn't win the prize, the work was purchased by Charles Saatchi for 150 thousand pounds. 

But Hirst has remained the leading member of the group, and continues to make headlines, attacking his patron Saatchi as being a man who “only recognises art with his wallet”. Indeed, hatched in the Thatcher era, a hallmark of the Brit Pack has been their uncompromising critique of apathy and compliance, and their ability to shock and awe the mainstream media, and bend them to their will. 

As the Sex Pistols did more than a decade before, they cultivated the concocted rage of a corrupt and silly media. This reached its frenzied zenith with For The Love of God, with the international press literally salivating at the indecency of the sums involved - even though indecent sums are paid frequently for works by other artists no-one thought much of at the time, such as Van Gogh and Modigliani.

Many saw the diamond-encrusted skull as nothing more than a sensational hip-capitalist venture, with a substantial investment netting a stellar return, or alternatively, as a fist in the face of public taste.  

Another common response was the tried and trusted, “oh anyone can do that, a schoolkid could”. But that was a common response to Kandinsky’s abstracts, to Rothko’s colour fields and Pollock’s splatters. And while perhaps it might seem at first blush to some that anyone could do those things - they didn’t. It was the likes of Rothko, Kandinsky and Pollock who did. It is also not true that anyone could do them, not as they have anyway. As anyone who has experimented with splattering paint on a canvas may attest, it’s not the splattering, but how you splatter, as it is with how you use a brush, or chisel. It is the inspiration, intention and skill propelling each splash, stroke and cut, that makes it a work of art.

Can the same be said of For the Love of God? What might be behind this work, propelling the creator's hand? Is it merely cynical profiteering off a dillentante, goofy, cashed up art market? Or is it that Hirst brings together two elements we view with desire and terror in roughly equal measure, being earthly riches, and our own death.

What, the work may ask, is the use of all the diamonds in the world, if death comes, as it must? You can’t take it with you to the grave - even if a cast of your skull might make it into an art collection, and the diamonds sparkle all around you like stars in the heavens. There is also something, possibly, in the intertwining of these two bedazzling specimens of carbon - humanity, and the diamond. Humanity, the brilliant creature of carbon, and the diamond, its brilliant crystal. Or is it more a well-wrought collision of human greed, and human corruption?

It could be none of the above, or all, in some way or another. And they might not have been conscious decisions of their creator. That is what happens when you play god. There can be unintended meanings, and consequences.

I for one am a fan of Hirst. He has always embraced the big themes of mortality, of our virtual divorce from the real world we walk, and our moral apathy amid the chaos we have engendered as the earth's dominant species. 

He is also unafraid to speak his mind, even if the world recoils, and demands an apology.

As ABC News reported in 2007, Hirst “once said that the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States were like a work of art, but later apologised.”

Perhaps as a final word to the world, Hirst might consider the creation of a second diamond skull, willed after his death, the diamonds this time to be implanted into real skullbone, his own holy of holies, creating from himself an ultimate work to go on into the centuries, even millennia, in a lasting paean to the ever-corrupting brilliance of carbon.

And of course, were he to have the rest of him, from the neck down, kept in a glass tank of preserving fluid, he would have turned himself into a gallery tragic's dream - two art works for the price of one. They would presumably fetch a handsome price too, on eBay.


  1. The Skull is no doubt, exquisitely macabre. Awfully expensive, though. Anyhow, pretty cool concept and finely crafted, indeed. The Shark and Sheep are also weird, but cool pieces as well. Always have been a fan of Pollock's Splash technique and Splash series. Interesting review on Hirst. Well written with a great analysis. Great work, Larry!

  2. why put diamonds ona skull when you can spend it on food for starving african. tell me that then

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