Laughing at death
At once critically reviled and wildly commercially successful, Damien Hirst (1965–) has built his brand as an artist from making jokes about death. Hirst relies equally on the resources of such art movements as Pop Art and Minimalism, especially Conceptual Art. In the vein of conceptualism, his pristine formal works are usually accompanied by titles that reveal the darker, more ironic overtones he invites: for example, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Who’s Afraid of the Dark?, or For the Love of God. His varied range of works includes the likes of dead animals in formaldehyde, a cast human skull covered in flawless diamonds, still lives of a surgeon’s tools, and intricate paintings made of real butterfly wings. With his playful critiques of society’s gods (e.g. medicine, money, and celebrity), Hirst has become an unlikely but prophetic voice on the ugly, but inescapable, truth of our mortality. While Hirst targets society’s avoidance of the thought of death, theologian Arthur McGill and others have diagnosed the condition in theological terms as thanatolatry, an idolatry of death. In this way, Hirst’s artworks help to open up a space where grief and loss can regain their affective gravity in our lives.