An Anatomy of Consumption

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007

Damien Hirst, the British artist most famous for displaying sharks and sheep floating in formaldehyde, has just sold a platinum cast of a human skull, covered in 8,601 diamonds, for $100 million. That makes Hirst the best-selling living artist of our era, beating the previous record -- also set by him, earlier this summer -- by a factor of five. White Cube, Hirst's prestigious London gallery, announced last week that the piece, "For the Love of God," was sold to "an investment group" for the full sticker price posted at the artist's summer show.

Normally, such a record doesn't tell us much, least of all about art. It just tells us that someone, somewhere, has way too much cash -- which isn't really much in the way of news, given the money we've seen spent on 500-foot yachts and flights into space and other conspicuous consumption. It's said that the only thing an auction record proves is the existence of two dumb rich guys, competing to pay more for something than anyone else on the planet has ever thought it was worth. Hirst's gallery sale, you'd think, would prove something similar.

If, that is, there's really much of a sale to talk about. With the identity of the purchasers kept secret, the piece could in fact have been "bought" by a consortium of Hirst's confidants and cronies, eager not to see the piece discounted. We do know that Hirst himself has "retained a participation in the piece," as his gallery puts it. British papers say that makes him part of the so-called investment group, though White Cube continues to insist he isn't.

But whoever they turn out to be, and whatever their intentions, these latest big spenders may have gotten themselves a substantial work of art, and not paid a penny too much for it. In fact, if they'd paid less, they'd have gotten a less successful work. You could say that the price tag, with its nice round number trailing all those lovely zeros, is the most important and valuable art supply that went into the piece, and is what makes it work.

That's because "For the Love of God" isn't only an example of conspicuous consumption, like some joy ride to outer space. It is a work of art that is all about outrageous and pointless overspending. And the best way for it to be about that is for it to insist that it is also the ultimate example of it: White Cube claims the skull's fabrication drove up the price of certain kinds of diamonds; the Bond Street firm that crafted it, "jewelers by Royal Appointment to both Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales," describe the skull as "the largest diamond piece commissioned since the Crown Jewels."

The 2,156-gram platinum skull and 1,106.18 carats (that's half a pound) of "conflict-free" diamonds that cover it are worth at most something like $25 million, counting the great big "flawless light fancy pink brilliant-cut" gem embedded in the forehead. Add thousands of dollars for the labor of bejeweling the skull (by hand, with lasers) and you still haven't hit anything like the $100 million mark. The only thing that, in some strange sense, makes that price so particularly appropriate is that this work has to be perversely, even iconically expensive to be what it is, and as effective as it is.

Its record price is unlikely to be beaten for a very long time. After all, now that Hirst has made a piece that treats this subject so thoroughly and finally, there's no reason for another artist to copy his price tag, or for anyone to spend serious money on such a retread.

Hirst's head is, in fact, the end point in a rich tradition. For centuries, artists pointed out the vanity of earthly life by painting the proceeds of secular striving -- a pile of coins, a diamond brooch -- with some dead man's skull beside them. (From this have we come, to this shall we return, gold and gems notwithstanding.) Hirst has simply collapsed the classic bling and skull into a single object, and given it more presence in our midst than even the greatest of Dutch realists could ever do.

What could be a better time to make this piece than now, and who a better artist for it than Hirst? More than anyone, Hirst knows that we have reached a new level of absurd consumption -- in the art market, clearly, but also elsewhere on this carbon-laden world.

No one claims that this is even close to being a major moment in the making of art. Everyone knows it is the greatest moment in the selling of it. Price has an even more tenuous relation to worth than it has ever had.

A perfectly good picture by Gustav Klimt, a moderately important modern artist, sells to a cosmetics heir for $135 million, more than has been spent for any other work of art. Contemporary painters who you've never even heard of sell works for millions. A superstar like Hirst can sell absolutely anything he makes for a small fortune -- some works fetch a large one. You'd pay more for a brand-new Hirst than for a major Dutch still life that's been around for centuries. The British artist knows all this: With a fortune of something like $300 million, he's a player in that world of insane wealth and mad expense. So now he's made a work -- the work, possibly the subject's masterpiece -- about it.

Of course, if Hirst's career stands up in the long run, and his skull really does turn out to be a crucial work of art -- which only future art historians will know -- then it may have been worth its price. In which case it isn't, really, the ultimate example of outrageous and pointless overspending.

And that would mean that, on its own terms, it's a flop.

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