Article by "NY time"
June 13, 2007
On June 4 the former Liberian gangster and strongman Charles G. Taylor went on trial in The Hague for war crimes in which diamond trafficking played a major role. Just days earlier the British artist Damien Hirst unveiled a platinum human skull covered in 8,601 diamonds and offered it for sale for £50 million, or close to $100 million.
But if coincidence, is it fair to make the link? Should every starry-eyed young couple looking for an engagement ring have to worry about how diamonds are mined in Africa? Need Mr. Hirst feel guilty that Mr. Taylor is charged with supplying weapons to gangs terrorizing Sierra Leone in the 1990s in exchange for diamonds?
Mr. Hirst’s London gallery, White Cube, thought it wise to address the issue, noting that the skull’s diamonds “are all ethically sourced, each with written guarantees in compliance with United Nationsresolutions.” Bentley & Skinner, the Mayfair jewelers that made the skull, added the assurance that the diamonds were “conflict-free.”
So that’s fine.
The concept of ethically sourced diamonds — or oil or weapons or even imported T-shirts — may be a bit far-fetched, but it sufficed to turn news media attention here away from human rights to the far more respectable subject of money: if sold, Mr. Hirst’s skull will be the most expensive new work of art ever made.
Now that’s the stuff of headlines.
It is no secret that the art market has become drunk with money lately, with major auctions routinely raising record prices for artists old and new. Never before have contemporary artists, from London to Leipzig, New York to Shanghai, been at the center of such speculative fever.
But $100 million for a diamond skull that cost $23.6 million (£12 million) to make? Even Russian oligarchs and hedge-fund billionaires might think twice. The work, by the way, is called “For the Love of God.” Indeed.
Still, along with chutzpah, it shows that Mr. Hirst is a shining symbol of our times, a man who perhaps more than any artist since Andy Warhol has used marketing to turn his fertile imagination into an extraordinary business. And as the natural leader of a group that came to be known as the Young British Artists, or Y.B.A.’s, who emerged here in the 1990s, he has paved the way for many others.
He made his name by pickling sharks, cows, sheep and the like, but his real achievement was to break the power of London’s traditional galleries. Initially sponsored by the dealer and collector Charles Saatchi, himself a former advertising magnate, Mr. Hirst soon became an art entrepreneur in his own right. And having created his brand, he found he could sell almost anything.
Now 42, he still pickles animals in formaldehyde, but he also sells spin paintings, enlarged anatomical figures, pharmaceutical products displayed in cupboards, butterfly collages and, in White Cube’s current “Beyond Belief” show, which includes the diamond skull, paintings of the birth of his son through Caesarean section and large oils of malignant tumors.
Apart from their salability and the fact that many of these works are made by Mr. Hirst’s studio assistants (or his jewelers), what they have in common, White Cube tells us, is his exploration of “the fundamental themes of human existence — life, death, truth, love, immortality and art itself.”
Thus “For the Love of God” is presented in the tradition of memento mori — those skulls placed in classical paintings to remind us of what lies ahead — and as a homage to the Aztecs (Mr. Hirst now spends part of every year in Mexico), who attached precious stones to skulls and even made entire skulls with crystal.
In other words, Mr. Hirst’s piece is packaged as a concept.
It is also an object. Seen under a single spotlight in a darkened room of White Cube’s Mayfair gallery, the skull is entirely covered with small diamonds, including the nostrils, while one mega-diamond, weighing 52.40 carats, sits on its forehead.
We are told that the skull belonged to a European who died at about 35, sometime between 1720 and 1810. His cranium — or rather its platinum cast — now sparkles like a strobe ball in a disco.
Is it beautiful? Compared with what? Like the crown jewels, it is what it is: a highly skilled exercise in extravagance. Knowing its asking price adds to its wow factor: imagine opening a suitcase with a $100 million worth of bills. Wow!
And talking (again) of money, White Cube says that three or four collectors have shown interest in acquiring the skull. And one, according to British news media reports, is the pop singer George Michael.
But those who lack resources or security guards have not been forgotten: Mr. Hirst is offering limited editions of silkscreen prints of it, costing from $2,000 to $20,000. (The most expensive 250 prints are sprinkled with diamond dust.)
Well, clearly museums that are reduced to selling postcards, T-shirts and coffee mugs of Renaissance masterpieces have something to learn.
But in fairness, Mr. Hirst is just playing the game. It is a game played by collectors and dealers at art fairs throughout the year; it is a game finessed as never before by Sotheby’s and Christie’s; it is a game in which, in the words of Nick Cohen, a rare British journalist to trash Mr. Hirst’s publicity coup, “the price tag is the art.”
Will the bubble burst? If it does, it will be no fault of the artists; it will be because stock markets take a dive, and collectors retrench. But it may do art itself no harm. Mr. Cohen, for one, is looking forward to the day Mr. Hirst takes a fall.
Mr. Hirst “isn’t criticizing the excess, not even ironically,” Mr. Cohen wrote in The Evening Standard here, “but rolling in it and loving it. The sooner he goes out of fashion, the better.”