The poet of putrefaction strikes again. Or should one say festers again? Since Damien Hirst first achieved notoriety in 1990 by placing a rotting cow’s head in a glass vitrine, he has gone on to immerse a shark in formaldehyde, saw a cow and calf into precise cross-sections, and even to congratulate the hijackers of 9/11 for creating a “visually stunning” work of art. Now the 1995 Turner Prize winner has achieved another milestone. His work entitled For the Love of God, which consists of an actual human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, has just been sold to a consortium of anonymous investors for £50 million. It is (by far) highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.
Virtually every aspect of the work has been the subject of controversy—Hirst was accused of plagiarizing the idea of the skull; of making use of smuggled diamonds; and even of staging the entire sale as a hoax—every aspect, that is, except the use of a human skull as an artistic material. Hirst was quick to insist that he used only “ethically sourced diamonds” but has little to say about the ethics of body parts; presumably the Islington taxidermist who he says sold him the skull, qualifies as an ethical source. (Radiocarbon analysis showed the skull to be about 200 years old.)
Given that Hirst’s career has been based on the exploitation of revulsion, it was probably inevitable that he proceed from the use of animal cadavers to the parts of actual human corpses. Still, it is unclear whether or not he would have crossed this line if it had not been for the international success of Günther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition, whose playfully posed “plastinated” cadavers have done much to erode the powerful social taboo against irreverent treatment of the human body.
A year ago, writing in COMMENTARY about Body Worlds, I suggested that works of art that are deliberately repellent, as offensive as they may be, “at least presuppose the capacity to be disgusted—which places them in a moral universe.” But now Hirst has lost the last vestiges of that capacity; rather than finding his grinning skull disturbing, he reports that it is “quite bling.” For the love of God, indeed.