When I began this arts column the first person I told was Kristen, a painter and my friend for the last four years.  I told her the theme was modern and contemporary art.  She said, “Please don’t write about Damien Hirst.”   

So I’m writing about Damien Hirst.   

Many have pointed out the bizarre nature of the contemporary art world, and although Kristen had several reasons for disliking Hirst, her primary one is quite simple.  Unlike the taxidermied animals in Robert Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking Combines, Hirst did not stick to using animals that were already dead.  He paid for the capture of a healthy wild tiger shark to float and preserve in formaldehyde for ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living.’

Kristen is no vegetarian and neither am I.  I suspect the shark disturbs her because it points to a certain vanity: Hirst believed his art’s importance merited this death. He’s certainly not alone in using taxidermied animals, and I have yet to learn whether Maurizio Cattelan kills his own animals or acquires them like Rauschenberg.  But is this any vainer than a leather Louis Vuitton bag?  If you don’t object to that, can you object to this?  (To be fair, the recent news of the collaboration between Vuitton and Jeff Koons is an upsetting marriage of Kristen’s least favorite things.)   

I suspect there’s more to it, partly that Hirst’s assistants produce his spot paintings, which is hard to slant as a commentary on consumerism when Warhol has already done it and done it openly. It’s hard to ignore the absence of women in the highest ranks of contemporary artists, dealers and collectors, especially when, as the New York Post reported, Hirst’s favorite assistant is one Rachel Howard.  The paintings she produces sell for 25 times more money if Hirst’s name is attached.

It seems, to many people, the art world is now the plaything of rich men, which worked out for art under the Medici but perhaps not so well now.  In the twentieth century, even under the shadow of the world wars and the Nazi campaign against modern art, artists were arguably freer from the tastes of patrons than they had ever been, wholly shaping those tastes instead of the other way around.  But that legacy lingers in sly, dark ways.  The wealthy may shape what is patronized in their homes and museums, but their tastes no longer dictate the art.  We are living in a world where much of contemporary art is for the wealthy, but the tastes of the patrons are shaped by the artists.  And they have a hilariously sadistic sense of humor.   

A few months ago, the New York Times ran a piece called “What It’s Like to Live With Art That Doesn’t Love You Back.”  It features several wealthy collectors who live, willingly, at the mercy and hassle of their art: a banker who spent months searching for replacement square watermelons, a couple struggling to contain mold in an installation containing a sausage, a fish tank that took a month to install and requires $1,000 a month to maintain.  There is a black kind of glee to be found in these pieces even if their owners love them, but none approach, in my opinion, the funniest art joke ever played on the wealthy.   

Hirst’s ‘For The Love of God’ is the most expensive work of art in the world: a platinum skull encrusted with diamonds. The pink diamond on its forehead is so large it has its own name: The Skull Star Diamond.  Hirst’s asking price is fifty million dollars, but the subsequent security and insurance fees further the cost and hassle of owning it.  The joke is simple: ‘For the Love of God’ is the world’s most expensive memento mori, a constant reminder to its owner that when they die, none of their money is coming with them.     

Since this is Hirst, there are no clean interpretations.  He could be quite straightforward in his intentions; he certainly hasn’t shied from his money, and if he meant the joke, it works because it’s also on him, a multi-millionaire.  Otherwise, he lacks a history of deliberately tormenting wealthy clients, unless one counts separating them from their money.  I do believe the joke is deliberate – I just wish it wasn’t, because that would be even funnier.  Unfortunately, Hirst had no hand in physically creating the skull, which diminishes it.  Rachel Howard isn’t responsible for this one; it’s an open secret Hirst used a jewelry company called Bentley & Skinner.   

Hirst did purchase the skull used to cast ‘For the Love of God.’  It belonged to an unidentified European who lived between 1720 and 1810, and for this man’s skull to turn up in a shop suggests he was never a member of the elite.  There is some exploitation here: a dead man’s bones turned into the art world’s most expensive spectacle, but I’m afraid the complexity of my emotional response to ‘For the Love of God’ suggests it is good art.  It’s possible this kind of response to ‘For the Love of God’ says more about the viewer than it does about Hirst’s merits, but the response still exists.  Some interpret the skull as a dazzling victory, but I’m not with Rudi Fuchs on this one – I see a brilliantly twisted, nauseating joke.   

 The nature of this memento mori reminds us that a joke can be, forgive me, dead serious.

By Elle Friedle.