Damien Hirst, Skulls & Black Nail Polish //

I hinted in my last blog that I find art, society, and politics to be intertwined. The following entry describes a trend that has infiltrated fine art and popular culture and may have even influenced your choice in movies in a way that you hadn’t anticipated…

There’s a pop culture phenomenon that I have grown very fond of. The focus of this trend is the macabre and it has enabled pirates and vampires to go mainstream. Consider this, Ralph Lauren offers ties with skulls and crossbones, Betsey Johnson has clutches with sparkly skulls, and in the trend’s worst incantation it lamely surfaces on Ed Hardy t-shirts. It has helped turn Pirates of the Caribbean into a billion dollar Disney franchise and consistently put the Twilight series at the top of the bestseller list.

I know what you’re thinking… Who cares that the pirate themed aisle in the party store has quadrupled in size over the past five years? Here’s the thing, in my opinion this is a little more than a trend. To me, this relates to imagery that has presented itself throughout art history and is called a Memento Mori. Memento Mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember you shall die.” The term originates from a Roman tradition where victorious Generals had a slave follow them during their victory celebration as a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change. Typically in western art a Memento Mori manifests itself as a skull placed somewhere in the foreground of a painting. If you study this in an Art History class you’re presented with a few textbook examples from the Renaissance. Albrecht Durer is one such example and is pictured at right. These images are meant to remind of you that life is short and they may even take on a sort of apocalyptic flair. This type of imagery seems to become broadly popular in times of great change, or when there’s a political or cultural upheaval. People in transitional times reflect on their own existence by contemplating their fait. This is why there has been an influx of this art during the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, early Puritan America, the Victorian era, and again in recent times.

For the past 8 years the western world has been faced with terrible tribulation. September 11th, the stock market crash, unemployment rates, and the war in Iraq have contributed to a sense of volatility that has people (maybe even subconsciously) considering their own mortality. Given this instability it’s no accident that Damien Hirst’s Summer Show at White Cube in 2007 sold out and grossed 130 million dollars. Or that in August of the same year Hirst’s Diamond Skull, pictured left sold for over 100 million dollars (the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist at that time). The appeal of this work was that it emphasized mortality and the transience of human existence. Hirst’s work presupposed the catastrophic dip in the stock market in June and July of 2007 because he was visually representing a palpable uneasiness throughout the western world. At the same time, people everywhere were wearing a skull on their t-shirt, debating getting a pirate themed tattoo, and unknowingly participating in a visual archetype.

Fast forward to today. Consider, even if you don’t agree, Obama-mania and the constant focus on hope. Watch the news and witness analysts trying to formulate theories predicting that the worst is over. Polls conducted in March and April showed that Americans were cautiously optimistic about the economy and their future. As all of this is happening there has also been a fall from grace within the art market by critics examining Hirst. How does this translate to the everyday? It does in two ways: (1) People are probably going to stop wearing black nail polish (finally!) and (2) Skulls, skeletons, and Hirst are “out” in the realm of fine art for the time being. It seems as though we’re transitioning into a post-apocalyptic visual vocabulary. Or maybe we’re just no longer focusing on a pop culture trend— even if it is a trend with historically relevant visual roots.


Studio222 Photography said...

First of all, I really like black nail polish, or at least a dark purple. ;) and I really like Twilight.

Second, this was absolutely FASCINATING! Oh my word Matilda, thank you so much for writing this. Your blog is so fantastic! Seriously, amazing and so interesting. I loved it. Keep em coming!

highwingpilot said...

Very interesting! Two other reasons for the popularity of pirate images... The wild popularity of the Disney films keeps them in the forefront of people's minds, just as Star Wars mania drove sales of all things "space" back in the late 70's and 80's. AND since pirate imagery is largely copyright and royalty free, anyone can cash in on it without paying excessive licensing fees to Hollywood.

As to the popularity of "memento mori" during stressful times, I couldn't agree with you more. I think this will continue for some time longer as the pendulum of change appears to be swinging out of control.

Matilda Anderson said...

Good point about pirate images being copyright and royalty free!! That does add an extra incentive and dimension to consider!

Thanks for the comment!