Heady Days

There’s nothing particularly religious about the recent record-breaking sale of a jewel-encrusted platinum skull by

the British artist Damien Hirst. Yes, its $100 million price tag may be religious in the “Holy Shit!” sense, but beyond that it just seems silly that so much could be made of a glorified paperweight:


Certainly there is something beautiful about it. How could there not be? Encrusted with nearly a pound of diamonds and other gems, it’s a helluva knick knack. Beyond the shine, though, it’s not much more than a heap of metal, stone, and teeth (real teeth!) — and its absurdly inflated value only makes it seem all the more so.

Yet the skull’s title “For the Love of God” makes it marginally more interesting to us. After all, there is a long history in art, particularly in medieval religious painting, of inserting bony reminders of our ultimate end even as hope for the eternal is evoked. This is usually interpreted as a way of balancing the image, both aesthetically and spiritually: yes, be glad you are going to heaven; no, don’t forget that before that happens everyone you care about will suffer and die.

It’s an interesting move — again, both aesthetically and spiritually — to cut out the balancing act as Hirst’s skull does. To present death not as a counterpoint to all we hope for, but as something so wound up in the process of hoping that death and desire each seem to be made of the other. Pretty girls make graves, as the saying goes, and certain artists have always agreed. Dali, for example:


Of course most of us don’t need to visit art galleries, or Google for naked ladies, to be reminded of death. We just look in the mirror. Most are content to know that there is indeed a skull behind the skin. Others, seeming to lack the imagination to envision what lies beneath, make the inevitable impossible to miss:


Without giving too much credit to a fellow who apparently likes a punk band so much he literally defaced himself in its honor, is there any common ground between a man with a skull tattooed on his face and a man who conceives of a skull worth $100 million?

The question, it seems, comes down to desire and resources. Hirst, it should be noted, is himself worth $300 million. He’s a long way from a starving artist, and so it is natural that when he creates an image of death it would be tied up with luxury, which for good or ill is bound to be among a rich man’s ultimate concerns. And what does the man with the skull tattoo have? A pimply forehead. Twenty dollars worth of jewelry. In short, he owns his face and probably not much more. Why wouldn’t he use it the same way Hirst uses his wealth? Neither is particularly good art, but which skull would be more memorable if you saw it walking down the street?

Personally, our current favorite in the human skull as ambiguous statement on mortality or whatever category of the fine arts cost much less to produce (in terms of both dollars and pain) than Mr. Hirst’s or Mr. Misfit’s. It’s also the skull most likely to explain to future archaeologists why 21st century humans were so obsessed with amusing themselves.


“Clown Skull,” Vik Muniz