Damien Hirst’s "For the Love of God"

April 5, 2011 – So…I don’t know if you knew this, but we all co-exist in a reality with a human skull covered in millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds. Crazy, right? Crazier, it was created under the auspices of art and not “just something to do” and is called For the Love of God because the artist’s mother apparently had previously asked him “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?” However, despite the irrelevant name and its silly backstory, now that I’ve seen the object firsthand, with the sparkly skull inches from my own, I can definitely say that I am impressed to the point of wanting to rip mine out and swap. The art question has become totally irrelevant to me.

Created by Damien Hirst in 2007, For the Love of God is a platinum cast of an actual 200-year-old male adult human skull that Hirst picked up in a London taxidermy shop. After creating the expensive head infrastructure, he then coated it with 8,601 diamonds weighing more than 1100 carats like he was spreading seeds on a Chia Pet. Set in the middle of the forehead and breaking up the even pattern of smaller jewels that follow the exact contours of the bone is a large, pear-shaped diamond surrounded by smaller diamond petals. As a final flourish, Hirst took the teeth from the original skull and set them in the jawbones of the skull. All told, the most common estimate for the complete bedazzled skull, including platinum and diamond and bone and effort, is $20-$30 million.

Your and my skulls are probably worth the cost of a helmet each, and that’s only in some states.

Since that time, the skull has raised nothing but controversy…not for being morbid, mind you, but for being gaudy, artless, and gimmicky. Apparently, these adjectives are running themes in Hirst’s work. He sinks large animals in formaldehyde and pays assistants to paint multi-colored spots on canvases and then sells the pieces for ludicrous amounts like he has a hard drive full of the most exquisite blackmail on all the richest art collectors on the planet. You don’t have to Google too hard to see that the man is widely discussed but not widely acclaimed.

While I was in Italy last week, I happened to cross paths with the bejeweled brain case in Florence. Turns out, it was in its last month of a five-month-long display at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s medieval castle of a town hall that shares a piazza with the world-famous Loggia dei Lanzi, around the corner from the also world-famous Uffizi Gallery. It’s only the third public display of the skull in four years, and I would call it destiny were I not reserving that seat for when my superficially worthless knowledge of cereal box art is called on by the President to save the world.

Being who I am, I’d already seen a fair collection of memento mori on my Italy trip at that point, but none of them were encrusted with enough wealth to fund my life, this site, and the city of Nobpot, Nebraska, in perpetuity. The skull wasn’t on my original itinerary since I had no clue it was there, but once in Florence, we couldn’t ignore the fact. Its image was everywhere…on posters, pamphlets, banners. It started to feel like I was being haunted, and if there’s one thing I’ve always learned from ghost stories, it’s that you do what the ghosts say. No exceptions. So me and my wife went to go exorcise the skull from my soul.

Of course, you’ve probably already guessed it based on the pictures that I’ve chosen for this article, but photography of the Hirst skull wasn’t allowed by such as us. Apparently, it’s worth so much that even a picture of it is more than the artist and gallery can spare. But they do have a whole gift shop full of products bearing its image that they offer as consolation. However, since the skull was mainly a media stunt in the first place, every news outlet in the world has featured its image, so there are pics everywhere on the Internet. Like here.

We arrived at the museum right when it opened, bought a ticket that included the entire Palazzo Vecchio, skipped the entire Palazzo Vecchio, and went right to the empty queue for the skull, were we stopped at the sight of uniformed men with handguns strapped to their hips. A small sign explained the rules for seeing the skull: No more than 12 people could enter to see the skull at a time, and visitors could only stay for three minutes each.

We were the only ones there since the museum had just opened, and the armed guard apparently decided that we looked fine without bullet holes and let us walk down the Studiolo di Francesco I, a short hallway elaborately covered ceiling-to-floor in lavish artwork and used in its day as a cabinet of curiosities and a study. Of course, we didn’t so much as pause to look around at the oddly appropriate venue. There was a skull and spectacle promised at the end of that hallway and we continued, entering through a curtain into a room not much bigger than a closet.

My first impression was that the skull was suspended in void. The room was painted black and covered in black curtains. The only light in the room was a sequence of small spotlights aimed directly at the skull in its custom-fitted glass case on its black-covered stand, as well as a small flashlight that denoted the presence of another armed guard close enough to go with pistol whipping over firing.

The diamonds on the skull reflected the spotlights brilliantly in star-shaped twinkles of rainbow light. It was missing an upper tooth, an irony in a skull covered with diamonds, I guess, but a nice touch nevertheless. The diamonds seemed to emphasize the delicate shape of the skull more than obscure. Many critics use the term “mirror ball” to disparage it, but unless your disco has a $25 million piece based on the most iconic of human body parts suspended from its ceiling, the joke is too easy and doesn’t quite get to the core of the image.

Not that I’m defending the skull. Like everybody else who has seen or heard of this piece, the question, “Wherefore art? Thou?” is still bouncing around my own less-glitzy skull. Of course, one of the purposes of art is to make you ask questions. I’m just not sure that the first question an artwork should inspire is, “Who the heck came up with all the money to fund this?”

Then again, days before I saw For the Love of God, I toured the Sistine Chapel, an entire gigantic holy chamber covered in some of the most precious artwork in the world painted by one of its unequaled masters and his staff over the course of a decade, all told. It was overwhelming…and obviously hyper-expensive. The only reason “Who the heck came up with all the money to fund this?” didn’t pop into my head is because I already knew the answer. The Catholic Church.

Of course, that said (and now I’m just arguing with myself), it was a somewhat harsh experience to walk through the amazing and ancient mythical sculptures that adorn the Palazza dei Signoria and Loggia dei Lanzi to see this gaudy thing in a glass case. The artistry that went into the ancient Roman statues and this recent British piece are obviously two very different undertakings. Maybe both are art…but then again a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both dogs, and those things can’t even interbreed they’re so barely related.

Sure, Hirst’s For the Love of God is gimmicky, but I can dig a good gimmick, as long as he doesn’t beat it into the ground, and I’ve got a weakness for the skull shape, so seeing the shiny object pretty much made my day and I’m glad the thing exists. Truth is, were you to find it in an Aztec temple, you’d be jazzed. It’s just knowing that a Bored Rich Dude made it (turns out Hirst financed the project himself and that he’s one of the richest artists on the planet, if not the richest) that hurts the effect a little. As if the Aztecs didn’t have BRDs.

Still, it was a pretty exclusive experience, since it was only me, my wife, the skull, and a man with a gun, and that added to the value of it at the time. And it was an experience that took up only three minutes of my life and 10 Euros of my pocket. And, actually, that’s probably the moral of the story here. It takes money to take money. Also, that the “just something to do” genre is really an overlooked one.