Curated by Alejandra Seeber

This is not a Vanitas–Damien Hirst, a close look
Gérard Wajcman

Damien Hirst

Hirst Red Nose Day

Author’s Bio

Dazzling Mum.

This could be the ultimate meaning of this glittering piece, beacon work of Damien Hirst. It is in any case original. It gives reason to his title: For the love of God.

A skull plus a phrase invoking the name of God, is all it takes to unfold an ingenuous iconology around this work, that is, provided of course that one consent to see there something other than a scandal, a “hooligan’s” provocation “for the love of God” or the acme of barnumization of art, to use Marc Fumaroli’s expression, once the sulfurous clouds dissipated around the most expensive work of art on Earth, before a skull that shows its yellowed teeth while speaking of the love of God, in our latitudes, we are inevitably sucked into the Christian iconography of the vanitas. To refer this skull that shimmers like a disco ball to the austere tradition of memento mori will always seem like a last word, profound and serious, meant to settle all accounts with the artistic work. Obviously, we keep in mind the date of its creation, 2007, and its flaunting extravagance, only then to speak with compunction about contemporary vanitas. And it’s in the bag. Even if it’s at the price of neglecting certain details of the work, and without any sense of wonder. Like wondering whether in the case of vanitas, it is the idea of Christian life and death that stirs beneath this skull. Vanity of vanities, all commentary is vanity. Almost all.

Finally, we seem to have this distant gaze on contemporary art that Daniel Arasse diagnosed as a congenital myopia of art history, a long-distance shortsightedness. Here we would better follow this historian’s recommendation and exercise a close look to account for certain details of For the love of God that don’t mesh with the habitual ingenuous interpretation. That’s not to say that the reference to the Christian vanitas is irrelevant, but it certainly does not saturate the work’s signification. Religious thinking about death is far from exhausting what Damien Hirst’s skull has in mind.

It is peculiar to the work of art to make speak. Every work in this respect has to do with what the English in the eighteenth century called a conversation piece, which designates an unusual object capable of arousing gaze, interest and commentary. Jacques-Alain Miller proposed to define art as what we say about art. I would point out at least what artistic objects leave to be said, holding that the works that cause these discourses exceed of them-selves the discourses. The object of art remains insoluble in the discourse of art. If we judge by the multitudinous commentaries that have assailed it, Damien Hirst’s skull would be the king of conversation pieces. But there is more to say.

Contrary to ancient works whose subjects are thematically framed in a semantically defined space, it seems a remarkable property of contemporary art, of some works at least, to bring forth a flood of disordered speech, to baffle the senses and to open an infinite polysemy. In this regard, Damien Hirst’s skull orned in 8601 diamonds seems set with almost as many diverse significations. Among which, many are borne out by the artist himself.

Detail #1:  the title


Beyond any eventually dogmatic or moral sense, the work has in the first place a personal signification. Damien Hirst tells us that indeed, the work’s title is tied to a memory. When he was a young artist in the 90s (he was born in 1965), vitriolic period of the Young British Artists for which he was a figurehead, he was in the habit of confiding what he had in mind for his future works to his mother. These ideas must have seemed a little crazy, extravagant, to his mum, no doubt a believer, in order that she end up accustomed to exclaiming: “For the love of God, what are you going to do next!

Here we are suddenly projected far from the severe inspiration of a Pieter Claesz or a Philippe de Champaigne, far from the moral lesson of theology. The Holy family is there on the horizon, but it’s Damien Hirst’s. And more than the All-Mighty Father, what is invoked here, beneath the title, is the mother. Mum, in truth. Damien Hirst’s mum who we imagine all thrilled with wonder, love, admiration, pleasure, and a vague terror before her son’s extravagances. A mother who reveals herself finally to be all-mighty, because, if we judge by the rather mad idea of fashioning a skull in platinum, entirely covered in diamonds, we must admit that she will not have taken the Lord’s name in vain:  her son seems attached to never letting her down and to making her thrill again. That is, to always have to do something crazier each time.

If we look at this work like a bouquet of diamonds for his mum, a gift in short, other than that this intimate reference defuses all heavily moral interpretations, it becomes logical enough that the work reveal itself ultimately to be unsaleable. It is priceless, and without any other possible owner or recipient. For her eyes only.

It remains that what is supposed to make this mother thrill is not so much the objects as the idea of works still to come. This does beg the question of what Damien Hirst is going to be able to come up with next.

A word more. I’ve said that by looking at this work as designed to daze his mum, that is, in aiming at her enjoyment, we were far from the severe inspiration of these mediations on death that are the vanitas. And I randomly mentioned the names of Pieter Claesz and Philippe de Champaigne. Now if we look for example at Philippe de Champaigne’s vanitas in the Musée de Tessé in Le Mans (1644) or the Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill at the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1628), we can only be seized by one thing. Let’s call it their knockdown beauty. I mean these paintings that offer themselves as allegories of human life and call us to meditate on death, on the irremediable and the ephemeral, the finitude of our condition, the transient nature of our existence and the illusionary futility of the world, these somber meditations on the vanity of things that invite us to an asceticism are themselves finally, anything but vain, somber, or ascetic. Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas murmur these paintings, except that the manner in which they are painted sings out something like:  all is vanity, ephemeral, except painting, which is eternal. Its glory shall shine forth for ages and ages! The finitude of humankind, the eternity of art.

And the pleasure of painting. It’s fascinating to see to what extent these works that invite us to renounce on the enjoyments of the world testify in their least detail, be it in the grace of the objects, the rendering of the materials, the refinement of colors, the head-spinning know-how used to paint yellowed teeth, a flame’s reflection on a skull bone or the gleaming transparency of an overturned glass, to the artist’s almost palpable enjoyment in painting these vanitas. I would say, without true metaphor, that these vanitas are the jewels of painting.

In this way, not only does Damien Hirst’s jeweler’s master piece rejoin the most profound, the most austere of the classical vanitas traditions, but it exerts on them a powerful light of truth by openly exposing that these works exhorting renouncement and detachment from earthly enjoyments are themselves bursting at the seams with enjoyment. The painter’s body, bent over the canvas, occupied in painting the deterioration of bodies, seems to vibrate throughout every part of the painting. As if we were feeling the art and life of Pieter Claesz or Philippe de Champaigne palpitate in the least detail of their paintings of death. Moral lessons dripping with enjoyment.

And it’s not just about enjoyment. These lessons from the crypt are made to enchant the spectator’s gaze. If in the anecdote he tells, Damien Hirst let’s us hear that with For the love of God his foremost desire was to seduce his mum once again, we need only draw our eyes to their paintings in order to be convinced that Philippe de Champaigne and Pieter Claesz worked to offer these death’s-heads for our contemplation in a way that elates those who contemplate them.

The artist’s enjoyment and that of the viewer, answer to each other.

Who will doubt that Damien Hirst had a blast making For the love of God?

Detail #2:  the diamonds


The exclamations and lamentations about the price of Damien Hirst’s work have to stop.

Sixty five million pounds sterling (or seventy four million euros, or one hundred six million dollars) is its price. But twelve thousand écus, is the sum, judged exorbitant at the time, that was paid for The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa produced by Bernini in the church Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome for cardinal Cornaro’s mortuary chapel. That was in 1652. There would be a thousand other examples of financial excesses in history, but Bernini’s is a good one when we consider that he also participated in the wild expenditures of Pope Urbain VIII Barberini. Better still, and to add to the fact that baroque is a term that comes from the jeweler’s craft, the comparison of the Damien Hirst’s richly adorned skull to this Bernini work would be justified enough in that in decoration of a mortuary chapel, it raises to the recently canonized Carmelite Teresa’s glory, an orgy of polychromatic marble and gold leaf metal.

With theses sumptuous expenditures, the evocation of the baroque theater of death is consistent enough to situate the skull of Damien Hirst. That probably did not escape certain critics.

But why think that this work would be a vanitas, a macabre memento mori to the glory of death–remember you must die?

And if this skull was on the contrary, rebelling against death?

Strangely, the symbol of death seems to eclipse everything, blinding us to the real. Most often we see there a vanitas, that is, we no longer see a skull made of bone; we see a gaudy ornament, noble metal covered in precious stones. That is, we don’t see metal and gems; we see the outrageousness of an artist. That is, we don’t see death there where it is. Because death here is also in the stones themselves. In the diamonds. That is, in the mines of Russia, Australia or South Africa where men work to extract them, sometimes at the price of their lives. The diamond as the price of life and of death. Bye bye beautiful bijou. Hello weapon of war. The work suddenly appears hard and cutting like diamond.

Damien Hirst isn’t satisfied here with some compassionate thought; he criticizes and condemns, he speaks of the capitalist logic, of a criminal dimension in the diamond industry. He says: “The cutthroat nature of the diamond industry, and the capitalist society which supports it, is central to the work’s concept.

Death is in this skull, but the death at the back of the skull For the love of God isn’t metaphysical Death, the thought of Christian Death, at once end to and passage from a transitory life. It’s a real death, the most vile of them all: the death dealt to another. A crime. In silence, the work renders visible that the exploitation of diamond mines is firstly the exploitation of the miners, and inhumane. The precarious life of this supposed “vanitas,” the vain life, isn’t ours, the good Lord’s poor children. It’s what the life of these miners is worth in the eyes of the big bosses of the industry. In the mine pit, it’s stones versus life. And to think that some managed to find that calling this piece “For the love of gold” was very spiritual in aiming at Damien Hirst’s supposed rapacity.

What the memento of the death’s-head finally says is not Remember you must die. It is: Remember they die.

The burst of precious stones suddenly glows darkly; the extravagance of a contemporary artist turns to the tragic. Not in the name of Death, but in the name of the dead. By using the diamond, sublime stone, as material, the artist does more than elevate a monument to the dead of a murderous capitalism. He reveals that this supreme symbol of luxury and beauty is a veil on savagery and horror. At the same time, he shows us the most common blindness –in the face of what sparkles.

In For the love of God, Damien Hirst accomplishes an unveiling.  He does his artist’s job, he works the truth.

Detail #3:  the skull


There must be a profound affinity between the body and stone for stone to be so called upon as soon as it’s a question of giving sepulcher to the human body. Jacques-Alain Miller spoke of this ridged One always summoned to there petrify the defunct members of the human species. The reign of death is the reign of stone. Stone separates death from the living, but also the dead from the living; creating a perimetered space, separate, forbidden, sacred. Cavern, pyramid, tombstone, dug, sculpted, engraved, stone is everywhere in the culture of death.

In For the love of God, Damien Hirst enclosed someone dead, in the stones, in the diamonds. Precious, brilliant cut, engraved, the diamond is the highest of high fashion stones. The work is the encounter between the culture of death and the culture of stones.

All that goes to show, for a third time, that Damien Hirst’s skull is not a vanitas.

The skull we’re dealing with here isn’t a death’s-head, it is the head of someone dead.

The particular thing about the skulls of the vanitas is that they are anonymous. It remains that in Christian culture, there is at the origin of the skull, a name: Adam’s. The skull of the vanitas refers to Golgotha, or, in Aramaic, the Mound of skulls. And this hill, still called the Calvary, close to Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, is according to tradition, the place where Adam was born, where he sinned and where his body was buried. It is said that it was Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem during Abraham’s time, who placed Adam’s skull at the Calvary. And so, Jesus died to redeem the sins of humanity on the very same spot of the original sin, and below the feet of the crucified, Adam’s skull is found.

At the same time, to say that the skull of the vanitas is Adam’s skull is a way of saying that the skull is anonymous, the generic one of sinners, of the entirety of sinful humanity, of the Human that the skull exhibits in its mortal destiny, its failing, its senescence. And even outside of the Christian tradition, in anatomical terms, the erasure of the face that a skeleton implies is a way to bring a human back to the species, to the anonymity of the species. Under the gaze of the forensic scientist or the anatomist, the skull of a human becomes the skull of the human, homo sapiens, the skull of human kind.

Damien Hirst’s skull is not Adam’s, nor is it the skull of the Human. It is neither the anonymous skull of the poor sinner, nor the universal one of homo sapiens. It is not a symbol. And it’s not simply a work of platinum and diamonds fashioned into a death’s-head. I mean that under the diamonds and platinum there is a real skull, a head of bone, a human among humans. We don’t see it. Only its teeth fit into its jaw are visible. But once again, if there is a real skull there underneath, and beyond the fact that he covered it over, Damien Hirst didn’t use it like an indifferent human skull with the aim of making it an anonymous symbol of the anonymous death in a vanitas.

First of all, Damien Hirst bought the skull from a London taxidermist, after which he had it undergo a battery of scientific exams, biological and physical, one of which was carbon 14 dating, to learn more about the person in question. Research revealed that it was the skull of a man, of European origin, and more certainly Mediterranean, who died at the age of 35, having lived during the second half of the 18th century. We know no more than that, but what counts is that for Damien Hirst, the skull he used was not a skull, but the skull of this man, a singular person.

No symbol. Fuck the symbol. This skull is not Death; it’s a dead man. And if it’s bejeweled, as richly, as luxuriously as possible, it is once again an artistic act of truth.

The decoration of skulls refers to other traditions than Christian ones. Without speaking of a homage to the comic book character that Damien Hirst used to read as a child, Tharg the Mighty, who like the skull, had a circle engraved on his fore head, a multitude of ethnological references comes to mind. Be they the Marquesan trophy skulls, the reliquary skulls of New Zealand, the African Fang peoples’ incrusted and painted skulls, or the still thriving Mexican death’s-heads decorated to the point of being grotesque.

From the mention of these different customs, practices and objects of far away cultures, we gather that there are obviously other possible attitudes in the face of death than the one we know in our latitudes. But there’s more, more striking. What all these traditions manifest finally is that these people don’t like death. A fascinating exhibition by Yves Lefur in 2000, La mort n’en saura rien [Death won’t find out -TN], that confronted the relics of Europe and Oceania, demonstrated this with blinding evidence. Christianity is a civilization of the love of death. And these vanitas are the highest and most outspoken manifestation.

Damien Hirst doesn’t like death. “You don’t like it,” he says, “so you disguise it or decorate it to make it look like something bearable–to such an extent that it becomes something else.” In describing the practices of distant civilizations this way, he’s describing exactly what he did in For the love of God. Damien Hirst acted as a Mexican, he disguised a dead man. He produced a work of desacralized death.

Death is iconophagic. It eats images like worms eat away at the body. In his Sermon on death, Bossuet came as close as possible to that death, the death beyond the image that causes even language to fail: “[…] the body will take on another name, even that of cadaver will no longer remain, for it will become, as Tertullian says, ‘something that has no name in any language.’”

To the nameless and imageless of death, to the horrifying je-ne-sais-quoi, Damien Hirst gave an image that’s better than bearable, gleaming, even chiming, in diamonds, and with a pretty name: For the love of God.

So doing, he deceived death.

That’s not vain.


Facebook Comments