Luxury and Commodity
There is no doubt that For the Love of God has a brilliant surface. Its employment of expensive materials would seem to comment on the designer cult of luxury goods and the status afforded to artworks as highly desirable commodities. Thomas Crow, writing in a recent issue of Artforum devoted to critical analysis of the global art market (which not insignificantly featured For the Love of God as its cover image) discusses the effect of commoditization on the work of art:
While commoditization offers advantages to purchasers in many markets, in that they can pit producers against one another, it is to the advantage of neither the buyer nor the seller of art, who share a common interest in the perceived incomparability of the product. (Artforum XLVI, No. 8 p.287)
As artworks increasingly seem to occupying the position of unique and thus ultimately desirable products (popular discussion of art in the mass media focuses chiefly on sale prices for works rather than any consideration of meaning or artistic/cultural value – all the headlines for Hirst’s work mentioned the price), Hirst could be attempting to immunize his work against ultimate assimilation by market forces. In taking on the materials of wealth, the work seeks to surpass a purely financial value, whilst at the same time confronting a society obsessed with wealth, luxury and materialism with its own warped reflection.
In 21st Century Western consumer culture apparent luxury has become, ironically, ubiquitous. Whether through fake goods flooding the market, or through the exponentially-increasing realm of the spectacle (advertising, virtual images, etc.), the desirably expensive is everywhere. But in its proliferation, luxury diminishes. As it is democratized, it is robbed of its essence. As journalist Dana Thomas writes in her book Deluxe:
The luxury industry has…realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history, and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury “accessible,” tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special. Luxury has lost its luster. (Thomas, 2007, p. 13)
Like so much of contemporary life, the appearance and substance of the luxuriously desirable have become highly disconnected. Luxury brands no longer promote products, instead they sell a dream, a fiction of an idealised and impossible lifestyle. Because the allure of the luxurious chiefly resides in its unobtainability, when it is brought near its mirage disappears, like the moon in the bucket or the end of the rainbow. It is the prize which, by its very nature, cannot be grasped.
|Damien Hirst Death Explained 2007|
Conclusion: The Physical Impossibility of Death Etc. in the Midst of Life
Contemporary society’s zeal in embracing the luxurious is perhaps rivalled only by its ardour in seeking to avoid or deny the limits of mortality. Cemeteries have been moved from city centres to the outskirts. Accidents, pain and death are hushed and hidden from normal view, sterilized and officiated by professionals.
In such a culture, the reality of death is kept largely at bay, mediated instead by television, where it is omnipresent, though pulled of its teeth through continental divide and fictionalization. Damien Hirst himself has commented, some years prior to the making of the skull:
‘I am going to die and I want to live forever. I can’t escape the fact and I can’t let go of the desire.’ (Hirst/Shani, 2003)
In turning to the skull as a focus for artworks, contemporary artists such as Hirst, Gregory, Swallow and Cooke – to name but a few – would seem to be confronting at some level our culture’s attitude to death and the consequent approach to living which this engenders. In combining the skull motif with the costliest of materials, For the Love of God acts as an ostensible (if somewhat obvious) reminder that luxury is used by many as a distraction from mortality. The skull as symbol has become highly complicated, located within an intricate mesh of cultural and sub-cultural references. The artists referred to here all appropriate this motif on two significant levels – the memento mori or vanitas emblem, and the popular cultural icon with its many guises and subtle inflexions of meaning – from jolly rogers to biker regalia, from heavy metal album covers to ironic skateboard graphics and kids t-shirt designs.
Correspondingly, artworks employing this device can be read referentially, pointing us to a historical concept of vanitas meaning, in the manner of Sterling and Saxl, or they can be viewed as simulacral – detached from original meaning and referring ironically only to other signs, as the ideas of Baudrillard, Bal and Bryson have shown. Following Foster’s idea of the ‘traumatic real’, and considering For the Love of God within the context of Hirst’s broader practice, it has been argued that a third reading of the piece is also possible – one that allows at once both honest reference to the vanitas and ironic evasion of serious meaning through the reappropriation of the skull as traumatic object. The diamonds which cover the piece highlight the plight of the artwork as commodity (as Warhol presciently predicted), and invoke the cult of luxury, making the piece an archly materialist talisman. As Hirst comments of his motivation to make the work:
'I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death. What better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence?’ (O’Hagan, The Observer 26/05/06)
As demonstrated through reference to related artworks, the concept for Hirst’s skull is by no means unique. In fact, its antecendents go back thousands of years. What makes this example different is its positioning at the heart of the oeuvre that Damien Hirst has created for himself. He is able to execute such a work more ostentatiously, more opulently than perhaps any other living artist, and the piece relies on this ostentation for its impact. Many would hold that this work, like much of Hirst’s practice, is sheer posturing, of only headline value. Whilst there is no denying that it has this aspect, and Hirst relishes it, we should be careful not to miss a more subtle level at play here, to throw the shark out with the formaldehyde, so to speak. Along with the irony, the apparent evasion of meaning, this work also seeks to engage a kind of fundamental truth, which is more closely bound up with its own physicality as object.
If the artist’s role is to hold the mirror to their culture, Hirst’s mirror has a gilt frame, but is no less profound for all that.
 The exhibition Beyond Belief which contained For the Love of God interestingly also contained a follow-up to Hirst’s earlier infamous The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which comprised a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde solution. The new piece was entitled Death Explained, and featured a similar shark, this time bisected and held in two facing tanks, allowing the viewer to walk between them, and inspect the embalmed mechanics of the shark’s digestive system – literally to take a view which is made possible only through the animal’s death and thus confirm its demise at the level of spectacle (See Jaques Lacan’s The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze and Anamorphosis in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis).
 The fact that the skull employed here is a replica made in platinum is not important to this point. Hirst originally intended using the original skull, and its removal from the final artwork was primarily a practical decision. Indeed, the teeth used in the piece are authentic.