Monday, June 9, 2008

For the Love of Pete

If you were to take all the things that I dislike about the contemporary art world and compress them into one single person, that person would be Damien Hirst. Born June 7, 1965, Hirst took his long career of self-promotion and sensationalism to the mountaintop with his For The Love of God (above, from 2007). Hirst’s mother reportedly asked her son, as many of us have, “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?” In reply, Hirst attached 8,601 diamonds and one pear-shaped, pink diamond to a platinum cast over an actual human skull, leaving only the original teeth exposed. A former friend of Hirst, John LeKay claimed that Hirst plagarized his 1993 crystal-covered skull, only to have his claim ignored by the glamour-obsessed media. Hirst asked for $100 million for his skull. When no buyer materialized, Hirst allegedly “bought” it himself with a coalition of moneyed associates rather than face the ignominy of his publicity coup turning into a fiasco. As much as people try to save Hirst by weaving elaborate meanings for his works, usually centering around death, all I can see is greed.

Hirst’s death credentials hark back to his signature work, the 14-foot tiger shark embalmed in formaldehyde that he dubbed The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (above, from 1991). Hirst’s shark always strikes me as more a feat of taxidermy than of art. Actually, it’s not even that great a feat of taxidermy, as the shark began to decay within the display and had to be replaced. But even before Hirst “jumped the shark,” powerhouse art dealers such as Charles Saatchi financially backed anything Hirst did sight unseen. In a vicious circle of influence, Saatchi’s name bolstered Hirst’s as Hirst’s growing stature then reflected back on Saatchi. The cautionary tale named Jean-Michel Basquiat from the overheated contemporary New York art market of the 1980s may be revisited some day through Hirst for the overcommercialized and ruthlessly capitalistic art market of the 1990s and early twenty-first century.

In the courtyard of the Lever House on posh Park Avenue in New York stands Hirst’s statue The Virgin Mother (above, erected in 2005). Standing almost 34 feet tall, the flayed Virgin Mary with her partially exposed womb displaying a fetal baby Jesus dismays passersby daily. Of all the art skirting religious subjects over the past decade and drawing condemnation, I find it amazing that, at least to my recollection, nobody’s ever taken offense at this sculpture. Personally, I don’t find it offensive as a religious image, but rather as a dehumanizing comment on the human body. Hirst here displays the female body as pure meat, just as he had halved sheep and cows years before in his previous grotesque displays of death. Do the people of Lever House really enjoy this? Or do they enjoy the idea of a name artist such as Hirst decorating their courtyard, blinding them to even this graphic display? Apparently money talks, and in this case screams, to the point that people will accept just about anything if they think it’s trendy. Hirst’s art is a textbook case of people buying art based on a name and not on any pleasure, sensual or intellectual, they derive from it.

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