Thursday, January 12, 2012

In Spots We Trust :: Open Thread

The largest exhibition of a single body of work every presented by a commercial gallery begins today. In all 11 of his spaces (literally spanning the globe), dealer Larry Gagosian is exhibiting the so-called Spot paintings of Damien Hirst.

This is not a review. I'm not a big fan of reviews before shows actually open (although this one by Will Brand on AFC does provide three of the most delicious lines I've read in a very long time...see final paragraph). And I have a general policy against reviewing shows in other commercial art galleries.

There is, however, no doubt that even though they may share my dislike for reviews of shows that the critic hasn't seen, Gagosian Gallery has been interested in launching a pre-exhibition dialog about art, commerce, and spectacle through their publicity efforts for this event. In case you haven't already heard, as part of the advertising campaign, they announced a somewhat tongue-in-cheek challenge in conjunction with the group of exhibitions:
Visit all eleven Gagosian Gallery locations during the exhibition The Complete Spot Paintings 1986–2011 and receive a signed spot print by Damien Hirst, dedicated personally to you.
I presume it's "tongue-in-cheek" not because they won't actually honor the challenge, but because the number of people able to actually complete it are presumably few. Felix Salmon pens a hysterical piece calculating what it would cost to visit all 11 of Gagosian's spaces within the relatively short duration of the exhibitions...and doing so in style, of course.

Over at Artlog, Jarret Moran lists 11 (heh!) Facts about the Spot Paintings, summarizing nicely the general talking points about the event that lead nicely into what I find most interesting about this body of work. Fact #6, in particular, is important to keep in mind here:
6. Hirst is still making spot paintings, despite announcing he would stop in 2008. via
Now in his p/review of the shows, Will Brand said of the paintings, "they’re just some weird meme for the impossibly rich that nobody knows how to stop." That notion got stuck in my brain last week and I've been trying to pry it loose ever since. "Some wierd meme...."

It was helped loose somewhat by another post Will Brand subsequently wrote titled "Art is Not Gold," in which he very smartly explores the idea that, despite all the talk lately of art being a "safer" place to put one's money, "for the potential investor, art and gold simply don’t have a lot of financial characteristics in common."

What does make sense is the idea put forward by Bruno Frey in his 2000 book Arts & Economics: Analysis & Cultural Policy (and before that in a 1995 research paper) that art is an awful lot like real estate: pricey, relatively illiquid, highly differentiated, intrinsically useful, and frequently purchased by Russian oligarchs. There are some key differences, of course – in real estate, for instance, there’s no chance of arbitrage, or picking up an undervalued house in Cologne and reselling it in New York – but I’d forward that art and real estate are a lot less different than art and stocks or art and gold. If you can find a housing price index for a particularly pricey area – like, say, the Hamptons – you’d probably even be dealing with the same buyers and sellers (a boon for comparing markets).

So can we make that our new cliché, please? It may take a few more minutes, as a writer, to look up a housing price index instead of a stock market index, but we’d end up a whole lot closer to the truth.

I find this line of thinking fascinating, and I'm going to give it more thought, but it very nearly lost me entirely by insisting art is "intrinsically useful."
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

--Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

OK, so stick with me while I try to stitch this together into some semblance of a coherent argument. And I'll admit up front that 1) I am not an economist (I'm approaching this from a purely for-entertainment-only point of view), and 2) I reserve the right to be persuaded that I'm talking through my hat.

Still, it was the fact that Jarret highlighted ("Hirst is still making spot paintings, despite announcing he would stop in 2008.") that got me to wondering before I read Will's piece whether aside from their drug references and irresistible prettiness, the spot paintings weren't also something much more clever: a new, private international currency.

currency refers to a generally accepted medium of exchange. These are usually the coins and banknotes of a particular government, which comprise the physical aspects of a nation's money supply.
Or they're supposed to. The idea of bank notes, as I understand it, originally was that they were promises to produce on demand the amount of some precious metal like gold or silver that they represented (try that in your bank today). That meant that a government could/should only print as much in coins and banknotes as they had in precious metals in their treasury (in case everyone all at once demanded the metals in exchange for the currency they held).

This representation of a nation's actual wealth has several obvious advantages: coins and paper are much easier to carry around and trade than the heavy metals; the use of currency permits loaning money much easier, and enables the sale of stock in jointly owned companies, among others. Currency also provides an easily verifiable indication of value. The number of zeros you see at the end of the big number on a banknote, immediately communicates its worth.

Enter the spot paintings.

Valued according to their scale and/or the number of spots they contain, they are immediately recognizable as a representations of their owner's wealth (which reminds me of what I consider the quote of the year):

“It is easier to have ten Damien Hirsts than to have ten yachts… besides, your yacht becomes more interesting with a Damien Hirst on it,” says the Mexico-based collector César Cervantes.

Furthermore, much the same way a government will sometimes simply print more money in response to economic hardship, the initial impact of the Great Recession on the art market and on Damien Hirst's work in particular, may explain item #6 in Jarret's list of facts mentioned above.

Consider this an open thread on spots, currency, art and their interconnectedness. Feel free to elaborate on or obliterate my comparison.

UPDATE: And then there's Hennessy...

"Yes, Internet, he just said that money is his medium."

Labels: art market,, open thread


Blogger alana said...

zzzZzzzzzzzzzZzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZzzzz...waiting for spot to run away.

1/12/2012 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

I followed the link to AFC and read the Will Brand review, then posted that link to my facebook along with the quote about being a weird meme for the rich. The link is now broken. On your page too. It seems the rich want to preserve their meme...and the idea that these dots represent who we are. Perhaps not unlike ancient coins for people of the future.

1/12/2012 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Sorry about that Danielle,

They may have updated the post and it changed the link or something

have corrected it in this post

will see how long that lasts.

1/12/2012 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.

--Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Omg Ed that's beautiful.

This thread confirms my thoughts on Damien Hirst . He will be the only mega art star who's value goes down when he dies.

For the Record :: I am a Damien Hirst Fan. He is good for the Art Buisness.

My Favorite Henessy video is "Henessy get's a lesson"

1/12/2012 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Originally Damien had titled these works as "Pharmaceutical Paintings".
and had sought a means of creating inspirational work without expressionistic intent. This from the artist that wants to be a designer (his words - an architect), that uses extensive manual labour to create seemingly technological gloss. In a collection of works dispersed world wide ....

The paradox of drugs, they relieve but don't by definition cure. Whereas Damien has stated:

"Art is like medicine -- it can heal. Yet I've always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don't believe in art."

Maybe that is why his works can be so annoying. You think they will cure, but it is only soothing to an underlying symptom. Another series that on the surface appears to be something it isnt. Leaving you wanting instead of fulfilled.

Which sure as heck sounds like capitalism and purchase (hence currency), - buy buy buy, to be like what you wish to be, but which you never become so you need to purchase yet again like some drug addicted consumer...

but I do like his opinion of art needing believers.

1/12/2012 01:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Great read! My first thought was "Oh NO, not yet more publicity for this dot crap" but you've pinned it down pretty well.

1/12/2012 02:31:00 PM  
Blogger Will Brand said...

Hey guys -

Michelle: Ed figured it out; we accidentally changed the URL when making a sneaky edit this morning. Both links should work now. If our moneyed overlords want to pay for the piece to be taken down, though, we are SO in.

Ed: Art's markedly useless in the realm of objects or actions; it's markedly useful in the realm of investment vehicles, because you can get some enjoyment out of it while it's around. Stocks, for instance, you can pretty much only use to wrap gifts.

The problem with comparing the Hirsts to currency is that I'm not sure what you can buy with them, other than other currencies. That said, there's definitely something really interesting in the fact that these paintings are so similar - I'm not sure we've seen a series with this level of consistency since On Kawara's Today series. In both cases, I bet you could build a fun economic model for them - just throw in a measure of dimension, a measure of number of dots, and the number of years since it was made, and you're set. Maybe that's next week's project.

Thanks for the kind words.

1/12/2012 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If our moneyed overlords want to pay for the piece to be taken down, though, we are SO in.


1/12/2012 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger william wray said...

Money creates fads--Fads always lose money. Funny-- Dots visually are bubbles... Bubbles always burst. It’s like Hirst is playing a sick game with investors, openly telling them it’s a parody of the housing crash… Metaphors have a funny way of coming true.

1/14/2012 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger Stefano W. Pasquini said...

So does one get a receipt when they visit a show? I wonder if I can organize to get a spot painting print without even seeing a show.... where is that fake passport website again?

1/16/2012 03:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Another Great read!

1/17/2012 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Tyree Callahan said...

Me, in a nutshell: Artist. Married, became a father and divorced young. Single dad for a long spell. Took a job with benefits as a custodian. Been slogging through that dirty, at times awful work, for nine years now. I ran out of money for school--the proverbial bootstraps broke there. Still, I've been painting, for twenty years. I'm about to turn 39. My job isn't getting easier: More responsibility, no more compensation. In fact, there's a pretty good chance I'll be fired/laid off in the next month.

Which brings me around to Damien Hirst's work. This idea about his work being currency for the uber-wealthy: I say GOOD! I'm actually pretty happy for Mr. Hirst's success. It's really quite something to aspire to. The freedom of it. Mostly, the time one could spend just making art is what I find most tantalizing. So many of us can't even manage to scrape a half of a living painting, and we have to expend so much time and energy into shit jobs. Good going there, Mr. Hirst!

I think the spot paintings are mildly interesting, personally, and I've read a few reviews that add more to my understanding of them. For one, I like the idea someone wrote about the entire exhibition being one giant painting, exhibited all over the world. That's a pretty neat concept.

I'm not of the opinion that works of art necessarily lose their value when treated as currency. Maybe some people are concerned about that being the case. It seems an irrelevant discussion, though: Currencies come and go, and 'art-as-currency' will prove no different than the Italian Lira. It’s here for a while and then it goes away and/or is co-opted in some way. It is the arc of art history that ultimately matters. One day, Hirst's spot paintings may very well end up in a dusty neglected bin in the art history thrift store: no longer in fashion, worthless as currency to the mega-rich... Maybe that doesn't matter to Hirst. And, if that is the case, I think that's the real shame.

Still, I'm happy he's able to make a living as an artist, even as the envy of his economic freedom may begrudge me so. And it does, I admit, with a hint of admiration. Well, back to the toilets for me.

1/24/2012 11:00:00 PM  

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