For the Love of God


hirstskull

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God

Money complicates everything in contemporary art, and affects every observer.

Don Thompson

Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall.

Andy Warhol

Was Warhol an idiot savant, pointing a finger at society yet caught, stupefied, in the glare of paparazzi flashes? It seems to be fashionable these days, among artists, to either ridicule him or bemoan the Age of Warhol. Ask ten artists what they think of Warhol and I’ll bet the majority will express varying degrees of dislike. The phrase “15 minutes of fame” is so common that it’s nearly meaningless. People are as likely to think a Campbell’s soup can is an image created by Warhol as  a food product on the supermarket aisle. His name, brand, image and imagery have completely permeated culture.

But let’s play a little game. Let’s pretend for just a moment that this is not necessarily what Warhol wanted, or at least not all that he wanted, that there is another version of success that he offered–one that remains all but hidden in the transformation of art into Commodity and artist into Celebrity.

One thing we cannot do: dismiss Warhol. Like the soup label, Warhol is an image the mind already knows. So we’re stuck with him. But do we know him? Have we learned all that he has to teach?  Are the artists of today caught in the headlights, blindly repeating Warholian gestures in a desperate search for their destinies as art stars?

Let us consider the version of success we all see in the world today, which is common to ascribe to Warhol. It is very clear in the art of Damien Hirst, and nowhere more apparent than in his work For the Love of God. The skull itself is platinum. It is encrusted with more than 8,000 diamonds; the one featured on the forehead, a 52.4 carat brilliant-cut pink, alone is worth more than 6 million dollars. The skull contains more than three times the diamonds than the British Imperial State Crown. When the skull was shown at the White Cube gallery in London in 2007 in its own room, dimly lit with carefully placed lights, people were allowed in by ticket in groups of ten for five minutes at a time.

The title was suggested by Hirst’s mother. It is what she said after hearing about her boy’s latest project. A reasonable reaction. An equally reasonable exclamation would have been, for the love of money! Because money is one of the primary themes of this work. I do not say it is the only theme.

The skull as an image is always an object of fascination. Cultures the world over have used human skulls as sacred objects in rites that involve the celebration of life and the contemplation of death. It always touches us deeply to see a human skull festooned with flowers or decorated with emblems of the living. It is only just, given what our society deems valuable, to encrust this skull with gems more excessively than any other object. That is painting it in the best possible light, and I have no doubt that, should the object go up for auction, the catalogue sales-pitch will read along those lines. But we, being Warholians, know better. It’s mostly about money. It’s about the spectacle of money. We gape in awe at the thing, as we would an aircraft carrier or the Great Pyramid. Only it’s not physical size or technical complexity that fascinates, but the glittering visage of such a staggering amount of money smiling back at us (it’s a hell of a lot more than the money you could be saving with Geico). It’s about Damien Hirst, wielder of this power, which is money, and about the person or persons who can afford to buy it. That is what the Age of Warhol has become.

Warhol himself never received more than 50,000 dollars for one of his works. That’s a lot of money, but today they go for millions. And with that kind of money comes complexity. As Don Thompson explains in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, “the Andy Warhol Authentication Board has exactly that problem—judging which works are authentic Warhols.” Since Warhol used other craftspeople to execute his silk-screens, they are easy to fake. Those who like to dismiss Warhol might chalk this up to proof of his stupidity, but as Thompson points out, some scholars claim that “it was exactly the practice of blurring authorship and using mass production that produced his place in art history.” But scholars will say anything to make their point. So here is what Andy Warhol said:

I think it would be great if more people took up silk-screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s.

Now why would he say something like that? When I ask artist friends this question I don’t get an answer. Is the answer “talk is cheap”? Warhol said a lot of provocative things; maybe he just wanted to keep everyone guessing.

Likewise Mr. Hirst’s comment about chasing money would seem to indicate that art is paramount for him, yet he is the creator of For the Love of God. Are they liars, or are they men divided? Is it possible that Warhol, aware that money comes and goes and that the flesh always dies (and, as far as I know, never tied up a bundle of bills and hung it on the wall), had his eye on a certain kind of quasi-immortality that comes to a select few, that maybe he was aiming to be included in this most elite of groups? But even if he wasn’t, and even if all he ever wanted was to become an Icon like Marilyn Monroe or Coca-Cola, let us look not at what he may or may not have intended, but at the cogency of his actions, and here words are acts. Because the kind of success that we have thus far been considering is indeed death, just as the monkey-see-monkey-do imitation of Duchamp’s gestures has resulted in a cesspool. Again, the creative artist of today, as well as the more sophisticated viewer, is likely to bypass Warhol as a source of inspiration. No longer a beacon of artistic daring, he has become passe, associated only with the grotesque commodification of art.

Damien Hirst’s skull, just as glittery as the once grimy Times Square, speaks. It says: You shall not enter! and I’m the King of the Mountain! It would seem, from the point of view of thousands of artists at the very bottom of the food chain, that the “whole thing is fucked.”

If art starts chasing money, the whole thing is fucked. –Damien Hirst

But this is not what Warhol said at all. Warhol echoed Ducasse when he said, over a hundred years ago: Poetry should be made by all. Warhol ate popular culture and made it serve him. He flipped consumerism inside-out with his “factory,” his “products,” and finally with his own image. He set an example: make the culture serve you, be its master, don’t be its slave. We can only lament the lack of genius and enterprise if few have followed. Instead what we see is mass imitation of his gestures. Warhol showed—like no other—how much Americans’ values are on the surface. To be sure, he valued the same things, and the great difficulty I have had in trying to write this essay is in resisting using the terminology of business. Alas, it can’t be avoided: Warhol was not only an entrepreneur, but in a significant sense he turned entrepreneurship into an art form. The great question is, can this be duplicated today in a way that puts art first, or are we stuck with Hirst’s skull? Is the skull the only possible result in the Age of Warhol? Or are there other possibilities that have been missed?

Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism, wrote:

In its pathological form narcissism originates as a defense against feelings of helpless dependency in early life…Modern society prolongs the experience of dependence into adult life…at the same time it [is] more difficult to find satisfaction…it surrounds the individual with manufactured fantasies of total gratification…undermines more modest fantasies…and makes less and less accessible the harmless substitute gratifications, notably art and play…The struggle against bureaucracy therefore requires a struggle against capitalism itself. Ordinary citizens cannot resist professional dominance without also asserting control over technical knowledge…they will have to create their own communities of competence. Only then will the productive capacities of modern capitalism, together with the scientific knowledge that now serves it, come to serve the interests of humanity instead. (p 231, p 235 W.W. Norton &Co. 1978)

Here in a nutshell is Warhol’s problem as well as the solution that he attempted. One might argue that Warhol, his factory notwithstanding, lacked the conscious intent that the above seems to ascribe to him. But again, conscious intentions are not at issue here, only the cogency of Warhol’s actions. The factory itself, the taking back of industrial techniques, the glorified display of the narcissistic gaze, all point to a way of setting capitalism on its head, of empowering a “community of competence,” of restoring the regenerative power of art and play, of moving toward the opportunity of finding the humanity that is always submerged or slipping away in a buy-and-throw-away-culture. Consider his “living portraits”: since the camera is left running before the sitter, the postures or the masks one ordinarily presents to the world may fall away, even if for a fleeting moment. It is as true a portraiture as anyone has ever produced.

To reformulate the original question: Did Warhol live at a certain point in history that allowed him to flourish, despite himself? We all know that some artists are born at just the right time. Take Jack London. He had a lust for exploration and a knack for clear writing—the perfect combination to coincide with a wider interest in Alaska and the burgeoning market for short stories. Lucky London. Was Warhol lucky? Was he just born at the right time? Could Warhol happen but once, and then, innocence lost, enter Jeff Koons? Is an artist either everything or nothing, a millionaire or a nobody? Are we all held captive by the oligopoly of billionaire collectors and their firm hand on the museums? And is it ultimately our fault, because we all go along with a value system that puts money on the top? Really, who among us who have put our blood into making art would refuse the advances of a Charles Saatchi?

I am only sure of one thing. The way out of the mess is not to blindly imitate the superficial gestures of artists like Duchamp and Warhol. Let them take their place in history. And let Hirst be the King of the Mountain. There’s still real work to do down here on the rough ground, where the diamonds are.

escape biopicMark Kerstetter writes poetry, fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.