What used to be a symbol for borderline-sociopathic tough guys with weird design fetishes -- Hells Angels, pirates, Nazis -- has become a trope de luxe, the kind of image you find on Gwyneth Paltrow's scarf when she's taking baby Moses for a stroll.
No one has embraced the image of the skull as an accessory like Damien Hirst, the forty-three-year-old British provocateur and darling of the nouveau riche. He set a standard for himself when his tiger shark in formaldehyde, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," sold for $8 million in 2004. Now he's ensured his status as the world's most expensive living artist with "For the Love of God," a diamond-encrusted platinum skull, sold in 2007 to an investment conglomerate for $100 million. What's even more incredible than the price tag is that the buyers got their money's worth. "For the Love of God" is a work as powerful in its way as Duchamp's urinal, so simple and so perfect a gesture that it's instantly unforgettable. Hirst ends what Warhol began: Art as commodity cannot go any further.
At the glittering, chilly heart of the work's success is a combination of the oldest truths and the latest superficialities. The diamond skull is both an expensive version of the mall rat's skull-covered Vans and the inheritor of the grand tradition of the Christian memento mori. A kind of Hamlet with Yorick's skull, set in the food court. For Hirst, the aura of profundity is just another luxury good.
In a more artistic, less trendy vein, see some beautiful examples of the image reminding us all to prepare for the inevitable, sculpted in Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries. at www.romeartlover.it