More Than Skin Deep

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By the early nineties the flow of new American art had almost completely staunched; Warhol had suffered a fatal heart attack in New York City; Rothko had opened his arms with a razor; Pollock had driven full-speed into a roadside fir. Tragedy-ridden America wanted to give art a rest for a while, vote Republican, watch Friends and allow other countries have a go at entertaining the world.

So Britain pulled a pint, enkindled a fag and got to work. Blood was frozen into the shape of a human head. Wounds were photographed to look like vaginas. Human waste was tinned. Royal College old girl Tracy Emin exhibited her messes to the masses. Husbands Gilbert and George spunked and smeared their way around London’s East End. The advert-mogul Charles Saatchi took interest in the new scene, sponsoring, among other YBA landmarks, the East Country Yard Show where Sarah Lucas revealed her breakout work Penis nailed to board. Beneath the apologies and reserve, was this filth culture what Brits were really like?

As the rest of the planet supposed so, an unholy Savior arrived from Leeds. Damien Hirst. He was a drinker and cocaine enthusiast. He had pushed a cigarette into his urethra at a party. He had earned an E in GCSE art. Hirst saved Britain’s dignity and saved a decade of frustrated, egotistical British artists. He designed The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a tiger shark in formaldehyde solution, giving Londoners an experience purer than the pollution-art of other YBAs, supplying what a millennial Britain demanded: a chance to look at something dead.

By 2007 Hirst had saved YBAs, become Britain’s richest living artist and beaten his booze addiction. Sober and successful, he was living in Islington when his mother asked him ‘For the love of God, Damien, what are you going to do next?

For The Love Of God is a platinum cast of a real human skull decorated with 8,601 diamonds. It is currently at sale for £50 million. It is Hirst’s magnum opus. The skull is ugly, maybe the ugliest sculpture a British artist has ever produced. Somehow, despite all their gross-out creations, the young artists of the nineties fell short of designing real ugliness. Their public displays meant they acted like blue comedians straining for a laugh. Hirst had created art that really shocked.

When For The Love Of God was first shown in the White Cube the tabloids’ sneers rang embarrassingly hollow. By setting the price as high as the stars, Hirst ensured that any serious faultfinding was to sound hypocritical. The skull may be heavy, tasteless and frightening, but any critic brave enough to say so must admit that they would give up nearly anything to own a piece as heavy, tasteless and frightening.

Though no greater sculpture has been crafted in the four years since For The Love Of God, we can be sure that one soon will be. Hirst’s gift to British art was not only his works but also his change to the zeitgeist. The gripe of the modern art skeptic – a toddler could do it! – can not so comfortably be said of Hirst as it was said, say, of Tracy Emin and her unmade bed. The 18th Century European whose skull forms the work’s mold and whose clean teeth furnish the work’s mouth died ignorant of his 21st Century afterlife. It may be trendy to jeer at the efforts of modern art artists, but we should remember to give praise where it is due. Damien Hirst gave a new direction to British art and created the most haunting sculpture of the last fifty years. For the love of God what more could we ask?

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Southampton University. Third year. BA Physics.

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