by Luke Strosnider
The line snaked its way up Jan Luijkenstraat, all spectators waiting to glimpse a spectacle: Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God’, a platinum-cast, diamond-encrusted human skull (credit Hirst’s mother for the title; it was her reaction to his plan to create such a thing). Making its first appearance outside the U.K., Hirst’s skull – the latest art world hype juggernaut – is on view at the Rijksmuseum through 15 December.
Amid the murmuring throng, a query came from behind me: “So, isn’t this the guy who put a whole calf in a tank of piss?” Despite making a truly repulsive beef stew of Hirst’s propensity for submersing all manner of wildlife in tanks of formaldehyde and Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’, the question cut to the heart of these much gabbed about, “controversial” artists and artworks: most people can’t recall anything but the salacious details: “Shit!” (Chris Ofili).”Piss!” (Serrano). “Penises!” (Robert Mapplethorpe). “Boobs!” (Too many to list). Unfortunately, any attempt by these artists to impact our emotions or intellect is lost as the conversation devolves to schoolyard sniggering.
So what’s missing? What’s the magic ingredient that differentiates an empty spectacle from a profound work of art? I’ll argue that it’s context; an understanding of where the artwork resides within the realms of art history, aesthetics, concepts, and so on. Without a framework for understanding, it’s easy to think that art like this is merely shock for shock’s sake.
Fortunately for the viewer (and for Hirst’s reputation as something beyond an art world carnival barker), the shiny skull is not the only thing to see at the Rijksmusem’s exhibition. Accompanying ‘For the Love of God’ is a Hirst-curated selection of works from the museum’s extensive archives, all of which dwell upon life, death, and the finite time between; themes which Hirst contends his work to be about.
More than simply choosing a few artworks and then walking away, Hirst offers his justifications for their inclusion in the show. His blurbs are paired with the more erudite wall text of the Rijkmuseum’s staff, and some come off like snappy retorts after a few pints at his neighborhood pub. On Cornelis Saftleven’s 1663 Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, Hirst cracks: “Heaven or Hell? You decide.
Seems like too many magic mushrooms to me.” (Haw!) But a few feet away, beneath Caesar Boetius van Everdingin’s 1660 Pan and Syrinx, Hirst recalls a profound quote on the unique power of images by another art world lightning rod, Richard Prince. Revealed here is the fact that Hirst is not only thinking about his art and what it means, but he wants you to think about it, too. Say what you will about his colossal works/stunts, but the proof is on display: it looks like Hirst is trying to start a conversation, and he’d prefer it if we were all involved.
Beyond Hirst’s picks are the pieces on view throughout the Rijkmsuem, much of which lends extended context. Should you choose to dash upstairs to gaze upon the exceedingly glittery and powerfully lit skull (it really is quite a beautiful object, but then what wouldn’t look good with 8,601 flawless diamonds glued to it?), be sure to follow it with a slow walk though the rest of the museum. Use your diamond-dazzled eyes to re-examine the jaw-droppingly intricate craftsmanship of Jan van Mekeren’s c.1700 cabinet, or the astonishing Petronella Oortmann dollhouse. Commissioned by patrons seeking ostentatious displays of wealth, these works are similar in spirit to Hirst’s skull. (We wouldn’t dare question these pieces as art, so why are we so hard on Hirst? Perhaps we’ll have a definitive answer in a few centuries.) And as a palette-cleanser, spend a moment with the humble terra cotta cast of Michiel de Ruyter’s face, a model for the one that would later grace his tomb at Niewe Kerk. There is no glitz or bling on this visage, simply death’s irrevocable end. No amount of diamonds could intensify this pieces’ terrifyingly sublime nature.
Artwork like Hirst’s walks a tenuous tightrope, with the bombast nearly obliviating the message. And while it’s true that many will only remember the numbers (8,601 diamonds, £50,000,000 price tag, €37.50 t-shirt in the museum gift shop), there’s a bit more here than sheer, silly excess. The Rijksmusem’s presentation is a beautiful example of context rescuing a single, over-hyped artwork from total meaninglessness. What might have been an extravaganza of soullessness is instead an opportunity for thoughtful soul-searching. That is, if you can cut through the diamonds’ glare.