Why did more than 118,000 art enthusiasts line up at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum for hours to catch a glimpse of the most talked-about piece of art of the new millennium?
'For the Love of God' provokes intense reactions.
Fans sing its praises, they see an unprecedented masterpiece.
Opponents write it off as perverse kitsch. They detest Damien Hirst's commercial approach.
Is the skull genuine art, made by an honest and successful artist, or it is a brilliant form of manipulation? Or could it be both?
‘For the Love of God’ (2007) is a platinum cast of a skull belonging to an unknown 35-year-old 18th century man. The skull, which appears to be laughing at the viewer, is covered with 8,601 flawless diamonds. Hirst outsourced this job to Bentley & Skinner, a famous London jeweller. The large pink diamond in the centre of the forehead, the 'Skull Star diamond', is 52.4 carats. The production costs totalled more than 15 million euros and the work was rumoured to have been sold to a 'group of investors' for 62,5 million euros. However, some doubt this. Damien Hirst is said to be part of this group himself.
The title was derived from a saying by Hirst's mother: “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?”
Damien Hirst (1965) was involved in art from a young age. He studied at the art academies of Leeds and London and in the 90s was part of a group of young British artists, the 'Young British Artists'.
Death is a recurring theme in his work. As a young student, Hirst repeatedly visited the morgue with several of his fellow students in order to do anatomic studies and make drawings. The picture of a laughing Damien Hirst with a horrible severed head was taken during this period. His interest in the confrontation between life and death was subsequently expressed in a number of art works with dead animals, which made him famous.
‘A Thousand Years’ (1990) is the kind of installation that mercilessly confronts the viewer with death. A cow's head, buzzing with flies, seems to be rotting away. Maggots are born in a glass cube and flies gorge on the blood from the rotting head. The flies ultimately die a natural death or are killed by an ‘insect-o-cutor’. "This captures the whole circle of life in a glass cube", says Hirst.
Another phenomenal example of the death theme is a gigantic preserved tiger shark, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living’ (2007). The enormous shark puts viewers face to face with their own fear of death. Yet, according to Hirst, death can never really exist in the minds of the living. You can only 'approach' death, for instance through art.
Being confronted with death is an age-old theme from the perspective of art history. 'Memento mori' or 'vanitas paintings' remind people that they will die, however beautiful, wealthy or famous they may be. The saying 'memento mori' ('Remember that you are mortal') was found on Roman cups. All Pieter Claesz' (1596-1661) still-lifes also refer to death and the impermanence of life and pleasure. The work of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is full of symbolic references to human pondering, who despite knowledge and science feel unsatisfied with the temporary and the fleeting.
In addition to his fascination with death, Hirst also seems to be inspired by the fame and wealth which he has achieved with his art. He enjoys manipulating the media in order to create a kind of mystique surrounding his work and personality. During press interviews, he often gives cryptic replies or he poses a confusing question back to the journalist. He doesn't give much away, which is what makes people so curious.
Damien Hirst can not be contacted by email; his website has been 'under construction' for months, despite having 5 workspaces and 180 assistants. After the Rijksmuseum, ‘For the Love of God’ is going on a world tour, according to various media outlets, but the programme is nowhere to be found. The bizarre doubts and speculation with regards to the hugely expensive sale of the diamond skull captures the imagination of those who are interested.
His art works are the most expensive made by a living person. He is a master of manipulation using art, money and power. He even went so far as to give the established art market a slap in the face by organising a personal auction at Sotheby's (September 2008) himself, without the involvement of a gallery owner. This had never happened before and sales surpassed all expectations: 140,30 million euros.
Whether the work of Damien Hirst is genuine art or a well-staged hype is justified. Hype can be defined as a phenomenon that receives temporarily excessive attention and thus seems more important than it really is. The result of that mechanism is something that begins like a hype, grows into a really interesting phenomenon. A hype stays, like Damien Hirst, always a topic of discussion. It can be deliberately put in motion, or caused by synergistic motives of media, consumer and producer. Should we mention Damien Hirst in the same breath with other hypes like Big Brother or Tamagotchi?
‘For the love of god’ is all of this: a good provocative work of art - the one symbolizing an optimistic outlook on life and the other as a symbol for the amount of money spend by humanity to postpone death - and a brilliant strategy of manipulation. And thus Hirst writes history, whether he wants to or not. He is already mentioned in lectures in art history as the most expensive living artist ever and thus ... won his own immortality.