Tuesday, September 16, 2008

First Time as Farce

The images in the news yesterday should have made one despondent, and yet they left me oddly numb and then thoughtful. Thousands of homes reduced to flotsam, long lines of Texans waiting for water or food or gasoline, Midwestern roadways now canals of debris, big-ass numbers next to downward arrows everywhere, the logos of insurance companies that use adorable children in their advertising to assure customers they are bedrocks of stability plastered over with text like "Teetering on Bankruptcy," and a roomful of well-heeled jet-setters demurely raising paddles to bid on embalmed farm animals and butterfly paintings.

Not to take anything away from Mr. Hirst as either a businessman or an artist, but the timing of the first day of his ground-breaking auction bordered on the farcical, even as its success must be seen as a triumph of marketing. Of course Damien had no control over the juxtapositions, not having, I assume, the sort of clairvoyance that can predict when financial institutions will go belly-up or Mother Nature will reveal her wrath. And I sincerely congratulate both him and Sotheby's for pressing boldly forward despite the tempests raging around the world, but after seeing the march of Lehman Brothers employees carting away the contents of their desks in boxes and shopping bags, seeing the personal belongings of Texans strewn across muddy yards, and hearing the death toll go up as the stock indexes go down, it did all seem a bit absurd.

Today, of course, is another day. Bambino and I scrolled through the online catalog for today's auction last night, doing the insta-critic "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" lot by lot, and saw a number of gems we'd be very happy to own (if we only had the space for a Zebra in a tank), but the one piece that seemed mysteriously apropos of the day was Lot 203*, a painting of Bill Gates reflected in a shark tank. Being sold on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which truly does remarkable work, the painting reminded me of the titans of industry who, at the beginning of the last century, sought to secure their immortality by amassing a treasure trove of art. Frick, Phillips, Carnegie, and on and on...as the world marched toward the Great Depression, these giants marched toward their eponymous museums.

And thank God they did, of course, for we're blessed by their existence today. But thinking about this did work to soften any sense of inappropriateness about the dealings in Sotheby's I might have had. If the world's wealthy are going to splurge while Wall Street burns, I'd much rather see their money go toward art than disposable objects. And that idea, that one day these art pieces...these artifacts of our current times of turmoil...will reside in a peaceful museum and elicit quiet contemplation, served to make the day a bit less tragic. But no less farcical.

*This link may not work after today's sale.

Labels: art auctions, economy, world events


Blogger George said...


I think you have really touched upon something, it's a psychic malaise which is seemingly permeating everything at the moment. It's as if our actions as a society are out of sync with life events. In the face of events which occur primarily by chance we are left with the feeling society might have been better prepared. That it might have anticipated the events beforehand and steered a slightly different course. In essence we are experience a sense of chaos where world events do not unfold as expected and it is unsettling.

There is a disturbance in the force.

9/16/2008 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

That's the way I heard it on the media coverage yesterday as well- some financial markets are crumbling while the art market is untouched. It makes you wonder how markets are related and what affect one market has on another. As for the artworld- there is a famous story about Barbara Hepworth installing the Dag Hammarskjöld memorial at the United Nations New York City when there was a ban on water usage in the city- but her fountain was turned on- some things never change

9/16/2008 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous scott said...

shop as usual in this culture of death.

9/16/2008 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

donna said " It makes you wonder how markets are related and what affect one market has on another."

In the case of the Hirst auction I don't think you can connect A with B. The world financial markets are in dire straights right now, a world wide depression is actually possible but not likely. However the money changers end up solving this problem it is going to cost somebody.

The current psychology is to flee to hard assets (gold, art, T-bonds etc) because paper assets (stocks, currencies) are suspect. Initially I dismissed this point when considering how the Hirst auction might work out, in retrospect it seems to be the case.

Unfortunately, the economics of the current financial crisis are leading the US into a deeper and longer recession than might have been expected. As a result, the art market is going to suffer in the year ahead.

9/16/2008 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

It also makes you think the rich get richer- or mebbe at the top of the art market- i.e. the auction market- all is calm and peaceful if not booming where as at the middle and lower levels- how are things? how are the middle and lower levels (galleries, artist studio sales and commissions, corporate art collections, museum acquistions, grants & fellowships) of the art market affected by these financial times? or is that another topic?

9/16/2008 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9/16/2008 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger Brandon Juhasz said...

Sell stocks, buy Hirst's.

9/16/2008 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


You are right in being concerned about the middle and lower levels of the art market. In the past 'corrections' prices at the high end may soften but there generally seems to be buyers for "blue chip" works. Unfortunately, in the lower-midrange sector the markets tend to contract more visibly.

My hunch is that the positive spin on the Hirst auction is good promotion but hiding some real problems high end of the art market. Obviously, demand has slackened and prices are no longer visibly appreciating, or the owners would have held the works as an investment, or sold them privately. I am speculating (guessing-no facts here) that financial pressures in other areas were partly behind the sale and that the works were target at "new buyers" because the current collector base was already saturated with Mr Hirst's works.

Wealth kills desire <=> Desire what you can't have.

9/16/2008 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

on another note... does hirst's conceptual work make all conceptual work hot, marketable and desired or is the concept the hot air in the current market bubble?

9/16/2008 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger Brandon Juhasz said...

I think Hirst has incredible personal provenance, and that buoys his popularity. Personally I think he has a great "brand" that people see as important, I'm sure it shadows talent a bit. For investors who may be art novices it seems like a sure bet, "well , it's a Hirst, of course it's important." There is a Slate podcast I listened to once that was by Lee Siegel I think, it was great he went through and described what he thought were the over-rated paintings in the Met and why, it was great he picked at Picasso and Balthus. It was freeing, "these works are important only because it is a Picasso" for example, I think Hirst can be that way, I enjoy the farm animals, I think they resonate on many levels. But then other works flop for me like the spinart, people still snatch them up. Picasso's pottery of the 50/60 were to me marketing and cashing in. Anyways, rambling once again....

9/16/2008 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

donna, Regarding conceptual work as 'hot' via Hirst.

If you think back to Ed's earlier post where he mentioned the changing of the curatorial guard at MOMA, MET, GUG etc. It seems to be partly generational as the baby boomers start stepping down. So, this means the new curators are roughly 20 years younger and may have a more ingrained sense of post-modernism and conceptual art. Not necessarily so much that they institute the position programatically. It might be that they are just more comfortable with the language, and therefore more open to the ideas.

I wrote a blog article Nodal Time which looks into how this generational change might be unfolding.

9/16/2008 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger some girl who lives in brooklyn said...

anyone in the arts needs rich people. to think otherwise is juvenile. this only matter because the people on wall street are also the people who buy mid level art work. let's be honest here. trickle trickle

9/16/2008 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

Hirst surely has a persuasive knack to express and exploit through his artefacts that general malaise, uncertainty and period of crises we are currently experiencing globally at all levels. Hirst is a man of our times, for better or for worse. Not unlike the Mannerist painters who also expressed the uncertainty of the times they lived in, or Goya when he painted the horrors of war, or the artists who expressed the decadence of Berlin in the 1920s.

9/16/2008 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

CNN and FOX web sites right now already have put a rape/murder of a Utah girl as their top story, as well as the O.J. Trial.

No need for us to worry.

In two days' time things are back to normal.

Breaks out her fiddle....

9/16/2008 01:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Actually, many of Hirst's art speak about "impending doom", so I don't really see how they would be so apart from current problems.

Of course, Hirst's original intentions as an artist got lost in what has the word "gimmick" written all over it, but it gives a chance for new collectors to own pieces "of the same" when all the previous ones are long sold out.
A great portion of artists find one idea and stick to it throughout their whole career, so it's hard to accuse Damien of not bringing anything new.

Finally, I'm not sure that conceptualism is what attracts buyers to these works. They're not just conceptual. Many of them are very museal: sculptures in curios, gothic mosaics, large abstract paintings. Some of them look like they required many hours of work, even though the artist did not make them himself. Hirst is an object-maker more than an idea-finder. He's stuck with his fear and fascination for death and entropy. His whirl paintings take the shape of tornadoes, they are very suited with current events. They record the beginning and end of an action in the form of a coil, which are presented to us as mirroring the shortness of our existence. A lot of Hirst art is poking fun at you when you call it "dead art".

Cedric Caspesyan

9/16/2008 01:34:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

i agree that the younger generation is more comfortable and conversational in multi-media, new media and ephemeral forms or art, if that is what you mean- thanks for the link to your blog- i will take a look-

9/16/2008 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

A lot of Hirst art is poking fun at you when you call it "dead art".

Hirst made some works earlier in his career that interested me. He certainly is a good businessman and is now endlessly repeating the works which were popular. While he knows his market, his work has become less interesting, less conceptual but more commercial, i.e. "dead art"

9/16/2008 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Todays sale totaled out at $72.7 Mil.

Discovered this link with pics/prices

Yesterday ... all my troubles seemed so far away...

9/16/2008 03:27:00 PM  
Blogger William said...

"Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America."-G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America

Domhoff's website does a fine job of putting wealth and investment wealth into context. While a great deal of investment wealth has been lost it's only a percentage of total wealth.

While it has to be hard watching millions disappear over night, it's not such a big deal when you have $750 million or more, that's the low figure for the richest 400 Americans, many of whom figure prominently in ArtNews top 200 collectors.

I don't think the class, let's be honest here, that is buying Hirst's work is in any imminent danger of not being able to afford whatever they want.

I do agree with some girl in Brooklyn that it's the 24,000 Lehman employees and the rest of the unemployed finance types who were buying art with fat bonuses that will be missed by emerging and mid-level artists. I'm sure some big names will feel the pinch, but short of a radical redistribution of wealth (voluntary or otherwise), the top tier of collectors will keep buying the most expensive art.

If Hirst has indeed made his art too accessible to the masses, I mean the next 4-5% of wealthy collectors, then perhaps he should just take the next logical step and design a line for Target. Fuck it, this whole thing is absurd.

We cling to what we know, but I think Ed would thrive in a socialist atmosphere. This is just the wrong country. What would Lenin do?

9/16/2008 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger atomicelroy said...

make hay whilst sun shines...

9/16/2008 05:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am already tired of hearing about this and it's only just ended.

9/16/2008 07:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Lou said...

I'm sure that every record profit story reported in the US over the last century, would have juxtaposed unfavorably with some poor country's woes had it been reported at the time.

9/16/2008 09:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes you communist bas*@#d go back to your own country!

9/17/2008 04:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The users here write the term "conceptual art" w/ about as much clarity as money market people use the word 'liquidity'. Do art historians consider Hirst a conceptual artist? Isn't that like calling Caravaggio a Late Renaissance/Mannerist painter rather than early Baroque? No one considers Monet's 20th C. ptgs. Impressionist. Isn't Hirst more like 'school of Duchamp' or the beginnings of a new tradition?


Painter Faggot

9/17/2008 08:43:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

I would consider the work to be Post-Conceptual, or Anti-Conceptual. It‘s in dialectal opposition to the non-material stance of Conceptual Art as espoused by Lewitt, Huebler, Weiner and Kosuth. (and an early attack on the marketplace) “ “’s use of rich materials (diamonds and gold) and expensive props (custom made tanks, stainless steel cabinets)is simply another way of convincing buyers that there is at least some real value in the works. “ “is mostly creating high priced upscale babbles.

(I invite others to join my conceptual piece by not mentioning the name of “ “ and instead using “ “ as his designation. Why boost “ “’s google ratings)

9/17/2008 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

“ “is mostly creating high priced upscale babbles.
not unlike jeff koons but "dh" has ephemeral elements in each piece that are not archival- although, in the end eva hesse's works expired- maybe that is another topic- how materials affect aesthetic voice?

9/17/2008 10:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

If one is looking to categorize Damien's art, you can call it macabre. I'm a little worried that the people with over 750 millions
in their pockets are into macabre art.

It really all started as a mix Jeff Koons with Uk subculture (post-industrial, post-goth, whatever) which had dealth with similar macabre thematics for over a decade (these sub-movements influenced by the dark symbolists and pre-raphaelites of over a century ago). Even the apparent "Factory" model of Hirst, or the fact that he sells his work himself, comes from Koons (Warhol is too old to have Hirst affiliated directly).

A good portion of the so-called post-conceptual art (since the late 60's) is very conscious of its museal or gallery reality.
It's obsessed by it: large canvases, space-as-pedestal art, insitu-installations, curios, well-arranged series, etc... This is not just Duchamps. The minimalists had a strong responsability for this, and both Koons and Hirst's art testify of this influence.
I think Hirst once dreamed to infiltrate some life into the museal space, and when he realized that was impossible, he started infiltrating death. I would love one day to ask him the question "Is Art Dead, Mr. Hirst?". His whole legacy hints at this proposal.


Cedric Caspesyan

9/17/2008 04:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Ced said...

OMG I wrote dealt as dealth... what a lapsus! (dealing with death)


9/17/2008 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

H's work remains categorical, nothing he has done breaks free of the established canons of art history. Available paradigms easily can handle l'ouevre, w/ antecedents everywhere: Warhol's paint by number ptg.'s and disaster series, Oppenheim's untitled installation w/ dead German shepherd playing his ode on an organ, a decomposition, if u will, psuedo science from Duchamp, shock value from Dali or Burden, and so on. He and Koons as well have simply embellished the categorical types of object making. I'm not seeing much in relation to Idea art to wonder how u all got there.

U know H. could have done something w/ the art auction as categorical type, in much the same way Duchamp did art valuation w/ the Monte Carlo bond. But he seems to hate art, making me wonder why he does it at all.

9/18/2008 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

A friend of mine lost $40,000 in the stock market. So he pulled out and has placed his money in gold. I could be wrong, but isn't gold decreasing in value as well? Off topic, but not off topic at the same time.

9/20/2008 03:25:00 PM  

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