When contemporary art does enter ordinary conversation it is typically because of some outlandish stunt or vulgar assault on our social mores. Such is the case with the 1999 exhibition, Sensation, that captured the national headlines when, then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani threatened to pull city funding from the Brooklyn Museum over several controversial works. One of the chief perpetrators was British artist Damien Hirst. Already no stranger to controversy, Hirst catapulted to worldwide notoriety with his use of materials such as actual sharks and cows—in part or in whole—displayed within large glass vitrines filled with formaldehyde.
These are certainly not traditional art materials. The shocking nature of these works initially caused many to pronounce Hirst as a flash in the pan—all show and no substance. Nearly twenty years into his career, Hirst has proved to be much more than this, continuing to invite controversy with each new project. Of his many attention getting ploys, titling pieces with explicitly biblical or religious references seems a minor infraction.
A former Catholic, Hirst generally refers to himself as an atheist. At the same time, he cannot deny the power of religion, stating, "I always think that art, God, and love are really connected. I don’t want to believe in God. But I suddenly realised that my belief in art is really similar to believing in God. And I’m having difficulties believing in art without believing in God."
All too often, any references to Christian themes and symbols within Hirst’s work are explained away as his personal attack on archaic modes of religion. What art world insiders seldom observe is that Hirst’s work is infused with Christian symbols and that, even at its most ironic, it possesses an earnest questioning of faith. Hirst recognizes that if we dispose of religion the big questions of life are still sitting there staring us in the face.
The use and abuse of Christian symbols is nothing new in modern and contemporary art. In fact, Hirst sees himself as the rightful heir to Britain’s original bad boy artist—Francis Bacon. Bacon’s grotesque abstractions of human figures foreshadowed the shocking imagery that Hirst would produce nearly forty years later. Bacon, through both compositions and titles, referenced the crucifixion. However, it was not the actual crucifixion of Christ, but the idea of supreme brutality, produced in condemnation of the atrocities of the twentieth century.
Bacon’s work of 1946, Painting (at the Museum of Modern Art), was directly referenced in Hirst’s own unique manner in 2004. Bacon painted rotting sides of beef flanking a hideous specter of a figure, feebly attempting to shield itself with an umbrella. The splayed flesh brings to mind outspread arms while the figure exerts some diabolical taunt. Hirst mimicked this scene of apparent crucifixion with the actual materials, sans the grotesque human figure, in The Pursuit of Oblivion which first appeared in an exhibition entitled In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida at the Tate Gallery, along with work by Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst. He did include a small school of tropical fish within the glass case, perhaps to add some levity, or comment on the absurdity of life.
I had always approached these modernist adaptations of the crucifixion as further evidence that Nihilism had conquered the thinking of twentieth century humanity. Then, while listening to Gertje Utley lecture about the place of religious imagery in modern art (From Gauguin to Picasso and Serrano: The Uses and Misuses of Christian Iconography), at an event sponsored by the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) during their exhibition Sacred Art in a Secular Century, a new theory manifested itself. Utley explained that, but for a very few examples, modern artists who incorporated any kind of Christian imagery in their work overwhelmingly referenced the crucifixion. I posed a question to her: If the modern artist had mockingly employed the crucifixion as the primary expression and image by which to put to rest Christianity, once and for all, wasn’t the cross itself—the key symbol of Christian faith—also a type of resurrection symbol within modern art? After all, crucifixion imagery and the historical concept was not truly destroyed. It continued to rise again as the symbol of ultimate sacrifice on behalf of helpless innocence. Like the phoenix (another symbol of resurrection), the crucifixion rose from the ashes of modern art time and again.
The Christian cannot see the crucifixion without also acknowledging the hope of the resurrection. They are two sides of the same coin. Should it be a surprise that when the symbols of faith show forth in the general culture, even mockingly, that their truth will make itself known?
Damien Hirst, maverick that he is, is not satisfied to question faith and religion via this most obvious symbol alone. In his interrogations of the meaning of the endless cycle of life and death he is uncertain what comes after. Is there something in us that goes on to a next life? Is there something that lasts forever? More than any other art world figure in recent memory, Hirst embraces this other side of the coin. This lies within works that, on first viewing, appear to be just a melding of biology and aesthetics. Numerous works are formed by affixing brightly colored butterfly wings in symmetrical patterns to enameled canvases.
The butterfly is an ancient Christian symbol for resurrection. It references both Christ’s defeat of the tomb (cocoon) and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Often, Hirst fully references the death and resurrection of Christ in the butterfly works through the symmetrical pattern created with the wings, which doubles as a cross. While these symbols may escape the viewer in a casual glance, one need not delve too deep to find them.
But it is Hirst’s 2007 headline grabber that proves this is more than a passing interest. Death was a theme for Hirst even from the very start of his career. It was inevitable that Hirst would eventually begin to question what comes after. For the Love of God is a title with two meanings. It is partially serious but mostly used in jest, as an expression people might likely use when discovering the materials: a diamond encrusted human skull.
Typical of Hirst’s working style, For the Love of God was conceived by Hirst but actually executed by highly skilled craftsmen to his specifications. Hirst had acquired a male human skull from the 18th century from a London taxidermy shop and decided that he wanted to create a replica of it studded in diamonds. The jewelers replicated the skull in platinum and then set 8601 flawless diamonds within it. They used the original teeth from the skull, polishing them up a bit first before resetting them. The forehead of the work is crowned with an impressive 52-carat pear shaped diamond, surrounded with 14 smaller pear-shaped stones.
It took the craftsmen 18-months to create the piece and the diamonds alone are worth about $25 million. This time around Hirst is almost attempting to defeat death through a different means—by buying it off. Of course, he knows that he "can’t take it with him," that all the millions he has acquired through selling his art will mean nothing in the face of death. He is mocking death, nonetheless. Hirst is challenging us to consider that death is actually a motivational concept that helps us determine how we live out the days we do have. This celebratory gesture could even be seen as a nod to the Christian belief that our deaths are merely the doorway into a new life in the presence of God in paradise.
The shock of For the Love of God is not due to the disgusting, nor even the macabre, but the obscenity of the use of these costly items and the retail selling price. The asking price for the piece was $100 million. In the face of the poverty and calamity that plagues much of the planet this artwork taunts us. It is this fact alone that brought the harshest criticism. And yet, as we stare into the face of mortality it stares back with the glimmer of the immortal and indestructible.
In the end, the work was purchased by an investment group. Eventually it was revealed that Hirst was actually one of the investors. This seems strangely unethical as it places him in a new realm with the highest selling price for a piece of contemporary art ever, yet he was part of engineering that sale. Part of the agreement of the sale was that the piece would need to travel to several museums over the next few years.
This may seem to be ultimately self-serving, but the savviness of Hirst far exceeds his lust for money and fame. Hirst has become a celebrity. He is in a category that transcends the typical art world and places him in the eye of the general public. And while he uses this as an opportunity to act outrageously through his public persona, there are few contemporary artists who are able to reach the masses with their work in this day and age. His antics are only the means to get people to pay attention to the work. The depth and importance of Hirst’s ideas then have the opportunity to be considered. His reintroduction of ancient Christian symbols not only gets the common person interested in high art once again, but sparks renewed interest in a faith that many thought was outdated and insufficient.