Sunday, September 14, 2008

Insert Gun Into Mouth

The Midas Touch

People wonder why artists sometimes seem overwhelmed with emotions or depressed or generally down. Not including the general day to day functions of being a human being, being an artist is rough emotionally.

Here is just one more reason why my survival as an artist is in question and the prospect of "making it" seems more and more like a fantasy.

By Jackie Wullschlager

Published: September 13 2008 03:00 | Last updated: September 13 2008 03:00 From Financial

What's aught but as 'tis valued? Or, as Andy Warhol put it, "art is what you can get away with". Damien Hirst, Warhol's post-pop descendant, understands better than anyone how art and money have always needed each other. "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever", his exhibition of 223 fresh pieces to be sold at Sotheby's next week, announces a radical though insidious change in that relationship in the 21st century. A slap in the face for dealers - this is the first time an auction house has sold new work - Mr Hirst's installation-performance is a landmark not just because it shows art being sold in a new way; it also shows it being made, and seen and understood, in a new way.

One coup is the production-line size: sharks, tanks, butterflies, shelving, fag ends, diamonds have all been sourced on an industrial scale by Mr Hirst's workshops, to supply finished articles straight to clients. Artists have had assistants and workshops before, of course - Rubens' studios in Antwerp made him one of the richest men in 17th century Europe. Mr Hirst's form of disintermediation, though, is contemporary, echoing the direct way bands sell music, or companies sell stocks, online rather than through record companies or brokers.

It is populist, neat, as clinical as Mr Hirst's pharmaceutical cabinets. Sotheby's is offering an estimated £65m ($114m, €82m) of branded must-haves, from spot paintings to a zebra in formaldehyde, for corporate headquarters and wealthy collectors - museums cannot afford them - which celebrate capitalism under the lightest guise of irony. Thus the ragged, ambivalent edges to the artist-and-patron alliance, the threat artists have traditionally posed to the hand that feeds them - satire in Velázquez's and Goya's grandiloquent portraits of Spanish monarchs; Manet's assault on bourgeois sexual hypocrisy in "Olympia" and "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe"; Manzoni's sealed cans labelled "Artist's Shit" - are here replaced by art's collusion with greed and bling.

Warhol ("making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art") and Jeff Koons (who gave consumer objects such as vacuum cleaners a high-culture aura) were prophets of this collusion, but "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever" is its apogee. It does not matter what sells or flops. Along with Mr Hirst's 2007 diamond-encrusted skull, "For the Love of God", the sale of starry, gold-plated works such as "The Golden Calf" (estimate £8m-£12m) and "False Idol" (£1.8m-£2.5m) crystallises and enacts a specifically Noughties aestheticisation of money. With Mr Hirst's open-mouthed shark and glittery-banal skull and bull its emblems, art history of the past 20 years is distinguished not by a dominant movement or style - that is impossible with the new global pluralism - but by the unprecedented, unstoppable, absurd, obscene rise of the art market itself. This is how we will be remembered, this is why Mr Hirst speaks for the times.

The roots go back to the consumerist, democratising 1960s, when buying art began to be seen as an investment rather than the province of aristocratic collectors. Not until 1987, however, when Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" sold at Christie's for $39.9m, tripling the record for any work of art, did the buzz and beatification of object and sale - crowds queued for a glimpse - initiate the sort of ritual surrounding Mr Hirst's extravaganza.

Timing mattered: the fall of the Berlin Wall was two years away, Sotheby's was planning its first Moscow sale, a success in 1988. What developed next was an art market hitched symbolically to the end-of-history triumph of capitalism.

Today's most lavish buyers are Russian. Undreamt-of liquidity makes art-buying on this scope possible, but the force in the past decade has been the new global capitalism's need, in the absence of an enemy, to justify its own value. So money distils art to pure financial terms in spectacles such as London's Frieze and the Miami and Basel fairs, and spiralling prices create a screen of dollar signs through which audiences view work and, increasingly and damagingly, through which artists create it.

Half a century ago, critic Meyer Shapiro warned of the danger of collapsing differences between art's spiritual value and commercial value.

Artists themselves have always divided between the worldly, such as Rubens or Picasso, the impoverished, such as Vermeer or Van Gogh, who sold one painting in his lifetime, and a few who feared wealth as polluting and panicked when they got it, such as Rothko. None of this affected long-term reputations or saved inevitable tumbles: Burne-Jones, for example - his once celebrated "Love and the Pilgrim" fetched £5,775 in 1898, £210 in 1933, £21 in 1942.
Could the same happen to Mr Hirst, or are vested interests so tightly tied into the economics of taste that a crash is impossible? And who is the shark - Sotheby's, the art market, global greed or Mr Hirst himself, artist-entrepreneur who overwhelms the imaginations of all around him with a brilliant but devastating Midas touch, turning art-making lethally cold and calculated? 

Despite - because of - the extremes of money and hype in the top tier, it is harder than ever for young artists to make original, relevant, untrammelled work, and for the rest of us to discover it. Money talks, but in a language we already know. Sotheby's on Monday will entertain, but still the silent corners of the art world are more riveting, compellingly unpredictable places.