Thursday, August 30, 2007

For The Love of God

Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull has been sold for the requested asking price of $100 Million. If you need a picture, follow this link.

The piece has been bought by an investment group, which means that it will now sit in some larger office of oligarchy and capitalism. But, if I can get away from the Marxist rhetoric for a minute, I want to critique something that I've been reading about in the analysis of this piece.

I read both on the BBC and in the Reuters wire linked above that some critics have understood this piece to be a critique on celebrity culture. Critics like Clive James believe that this piece is a representation of the sheer excess of celebrity culture, how worth as its own definition of success is essentially meaningless if it is not bolstered by a larger concept of both self and society at large.

While I agree with James' initial proposition that the piece is a display of excess and vapidity, I wonder if the medium of the skull is the best way to express dissatisfaction with celebrity culture. I think to get at this idea more fully, Hirst would have needed to produce more, smaller skulls to reinforce the aspects of what so many people find problematic of celebrity culture, in particular the lemming-like following that these socially irredeemable celebrities receive.

Also, I express hesitation at understanding the piece as a critique of celebrity culture because celebrity culture has changed radically over the past few decades. Remember: Arthur Miller was a rock star back in the 1960s. He was linked to Marilyn Monroe, a power move for the time. Writers as rock stars don't exist anymore. The closest would be Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City fame. This fact alone plus the existence of sites like TMZ, which cover the minutiae of celebrities' lives, have shown how much celebrity culture has become a void for the vain instead of a compendium of class and culture as it once was, a locale where the powerful of Hollywood and Washington could interface and bone.

If comparing the piece to the current celebrity culture, I would agree with that assessment. You wouldn't see me yelling it from the rafters, but I'd sympathize. For this piece to become something more than kitsch like most of Hirst's other work, it would have to represent a more universal whole. Our current celebrity culture is very special. When people in the future look back on our age, they will probably call us out of date, much in the same manner that we do to the past of gossip coverage.

Even considering these aspects, I think that this piece falls into gaudiness for me instead of pointed critique because of Hirst's own statements towards the piece. In The Guardian, Hirst is quoted as saying:

'I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death,' said the artist, 'What better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence? The only part of the original skull that will remain will be the teeth. You need that grotesque element for it to work as a piece of art. God is in the details and all that.'
The gauche nature of this answer helps to make me wonder how much of the celebrity culture critique is accurate. Ideas of vapidity and meaningless consumerism seem to ring hollow in comparison to such an approach. This obtuseness might be intentional on the part of Hirst, but it is still something that has to be considered when trying to ascertain greater meaning in the piece.

After considering all of the information, I believe that this piece as a gaudy, pedestrian piece of art done by a new age charlatan. The wool is being pulled over the eyes of the art world as Hirst takes it to the bank. People have tried to compare this with Duchamp, but that comparison is unfair in my book.

There is a meticulousness to the work of Hirst and a clear sense that he is trying to create a piece of art. This isn't signing your name on a urinal that you picked up with no other modification or drilling a hole in a stool and putting a bike fork with a wheel in it as Duchamp did. The readymade-ness of the skull is eliminated by the fact that Hirst painstakingly crafted it. Additionally, unlike Duchamp, Hirst's piece does not stem any sort of discussion of the meaning of art. It is readily recognizable as a piece of art*. The question becomes is it art of meaning or any intrinsic value other than the fact that it is expensive. My answer to this question is absolutely not. This, in fact, could make it a good representative of celebrity culture, but I still say that it doesn't; it's just kitsch, sure to pass in our collective consciousness like Hirst's bisected cow in formaldehyde.

*as I later found out, Hirst didn't actually make this skull, which gets into questions of authenticity. I'm not interested in those as much as I am in whether or not the critiques of the work as representations of celebrity culture are valid.