Saturday, December 6, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 7)

Getting even more controversial, in 2007 Damien Hirst produced this work of organic art, a cast of an authentic human skull from the 18th century which has been coated with diamonds, and titled the piece For the Love of God.  Because the work is a platinum cast, this piece, unlike the dead shark exhibit, does not run the risk of decaying; however, the artist used real human teeth to place along the mouth of the sculpture.
Similar to the Dutch vanitas paintings, this work is a Memento Mori, a token intended as a reminder to the viewer of the imminent mortality of existence (in Latin, it means, "Remember, you will die").  The striking glitz and almost-Rococo extravagance of the piece creates an intense contrast which is shocking, indicting, unsettling, and darkly humorous all in one.  It's a skull, the symbol of death, and yet it's totally decked out with expensive jewelry.  It's reminiscent of the Ancient Egyptian method for embalming a dead pharaoh and surrounding his mummified corpse with expensive finery.  Can art make anything and everything glamorous, even dying?  Or perhaps this is a joke on the futility of riches and wealth, bringing to mind the old adage that "you can't take it with you."
Once again, there is perhaps a question of morality to an artwork such as this.  Certainly the Dutch Baroque artists recreated images of skulls in their paintings, but is it something else to here use a cast of a real human skull—and, what's more, to use actual human teeth?  Is that ethical?  The question came up in my class, I remember, about the Bodies Exhibit which has become a popular phenomenon since its opening in 2005.  In the show, as I'm sure you're aware, authentic human cadavers are put on display in various poses and cross-sections.  Originally conceived as an educational science program, the exhibit has since associated itself more with the arts.  What do you think; is it wrong to publicly display dead bodies in museums for public viewing?  Perhaps this is the ultimate question of art's limits: making artwork out of body parts and dead things, even those of our own race.  Should we call that art?

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