Shrug Value

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Not wanting to feel left out, I’m adding my 2 cents on Damien Hirst’s new skull. It is a platinum cast of a human skull, with real teeth, studded with 8.601 diamonds, the forehead set with a 50-karat stone. At a reported production cost of £8-10 million and a sales price around £50 million, the press release called it the “most expensive work of contemporary art ever created” (whatever that means), and that’s kind of the point.

The skull, called For the Love of God, is exhibited at the White Cube in London until 7 July, along with a bunch of pickled, boxed or acrylically marooned animals and garish paintings, under the exhibition title “Beyond Belief.” But the skull is obviously what the show is about. Exhibited in a special darkroom, under 4 spots, with timed access and wall-to-wall security, it’s quite the experience.

Hirst says that it’s “the ultimate two fingers up to death,” a celebration of life, and he also says I “want people to see it and be astounded.” I’d say the work is probably more the latter than the former, which sounds rather like after-the-fact justification, if not tongue-in-cheek doubletalk.

Given its opulence, the shock value is a cinch, though it doesn’t have as much to do with death as with extravagance. Whether exorbitant spending is really an appropriate ‘celebration of life,’ and whether Hirst himself believes that it is, is really besides the point here. He has always had a developed sense of testing the ethical boundaries of art and has here upped the ante: not only may this production seem reckless, it also connects uncomfortably with the troubling issues of international diamond trade.

This is all well and good. Artists are not necessarily supposed to please their audiences – shocking people is one of their prerogatives. However, the aesthetic Hirst here goes for is – as in a lot, but not all, of his other work – that of kitsch, which cranks up the work’s sensationalism even further. Not only is it expensive, it’s also in bad taste. When he says that he’s afraid it might look like a disco ball, I suspect he’s not actually expressing fear, but rather intention.

This is perhaps a little sad since it comes from an artist who has, in the past, complimented his challenges of propriety with clear aesthetic sensibility – though he may have done one or two more than the concept could bear, those pickled beasts are rather beautiful pictorial statements, in addition to everything else. The skull, however, is another matter. It does not strike the morbidly beautiful balance of the catholic relics it emulates, but is a sterile, machinistic creation. A work that, like so much art of the last century, is content to be a statement, which is all fine and good, but also ephemeral.

I guess the best we can hope for is that it will retain significance as an historic document of a time when even ridiculously reckless spending is eliciting shrug rather than shock.

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