When Karl Marx coined his famous apocalyptic vision, ‘all that is solid melts into air’, it seems that he drastically underestimated the potency of Damien Hirst’s preserving formaldehyde. In the same momentous week that free market capitalism drove itself spectacularly into the arms of the dumbfounded state, an entrepreneurial Hirst grossed over one hundred million pounds for his own pocket, a sum that he raised through the stupendous sale of his mass-produced, mass-marketed, million-pound products. The gilded spectacle that engulfed Sotheby’s earlier this month read like a ‘This is Your Life’ retrospective of the celebrity ‘s career, with each conceptual highlight (Hirst has claimed that art is an idea that “goes on in your head”) helpfully commodified in saleable form. Consisting solely of works produced within the last two years the auction featured a brand new pickled menagerie, new dots, spin paintings and butterflies, it was a swift and efficient project of rebranding and repackaging that enabled the businessman to recapitalise so successfully on a series of past consumer hits. As business, it’s glitzy genius, as art it’s wittingly vacuous and perilously dull.
The exact character and location of the ‘art’ that Hirst created for or during the sale at Sotheby’s is difficult to pin point. If Hirst’s art is indeed an idea, then why did no one tell Jay Jopling of the reputable White Cube who spent a fair few million on mere physical objects? Certainly the sublime sums for which Hirst’s objects passed hands is indication enough of some kind of value, but equally it cannot automatically justify their status as works of art. If we rely instead on the originating creative idea that underpins an object such as The Kingdom (a tiger shark in a tank) that was sold at the sale, then how does this apologia fair when we recognise our lorded concept for what it is: an old and stagnant artistic idea, shamelessly reworked for monetary gain.
Germaine Greer has praised Hirst for his “triumphantly vacuous spot paintings” and has suggested that “the Sotheby’s auction was the work”. By celebrating the empty banality of the objects and drawing attention to their very sale as a form of art, Greer seems to equate Hirst’s Sotheby’s works with the sheets of repetitious images that were churned out of Warhol’s ‘Factory’ in the 60s; row upon row of printed Campbell’s soup cans, silently reflecting popular culture, presented both as commodity forms and as works of art for sale. Where Warhol concentrates on the heady digestion of popular, iconic imagery in the mass-marketing of the modern world, creating and presenting his art work amongst it, Hirst taps into the decadent fetishism of twenty-first century consumer culture, creating and selling each gilded, diamond embellished, butterfly adorned, luxuriously coloured work amongst it, and he does so with a typically Warholian enigmatic lack of comment on the overriding capitalist system.
Like Warhol’s, Hirst’s objects are created on a pseudo-production line (at three different sites his employees worked to the pattern or design of Hirst’s past ideas) yet they are also curiously indistinguishable from the celebrity persona of the artist under whose name they are sold. As any conspicuous consumer understands, it doesn’t matter that your hand bag was not personally stitched by Coco Chanel: what you’re purposefully investing in is the instantly recognisable name or product of a luxury high-end brand. Yet if what is artful is not to be found in Hirst’s ‘triumphantly vacuous’ objects themselves, but rather in the nature and circumstances of their sale – their placing of high art amongst the trends and concerns of popular commodity culture; a questioning of art and its status by art itself as it breaks down the barriers between the art world and the real world – then what a tiring and predictable bore Hirst’s entire spectacle has transpired to be. If the sole interest and purpose of the art of the Sotheby’s auction was the self conscious recognition of its commodity status as an object within a capitalist market of production and sale, surely one is impelled to yawn that we’ve seen it all before. Indeed, this is well trodden ground – ninety years after Duchamp exhibited his readymade Fountain (a porcelain urinal freshly born of a mass-production line and placed in a gallery on a plinth), and at an integral point of brooding economic instability, why must art continue to limit itself to acting as a series of ‘triumphantly vacuous’ self-referential punch lines? Where the Wall Street Crash generated the hopeful, inspirational, utopian visions of the likes of Piet Mondrian, it would seem that today’s credit crush is paralleled with the blinkered concern of an artist on a crusade of cupidity; pedalling ever familiar artistic notions and objects, his primary aim is to assert himself as the prime profiteer of his million pound products.
Yet perhaps we might concede that these grounds are still being trodden because there is still something to say. The astounding decadence of Hirst’s sale, featuring a real deceased Zebra and the reproduction of Durham Cathedral’s stained glass Rose Window in meticulously captured and preserved, brightly coloured butterflies represents a staggering amplification of the Warholian interest in readily available supermarket soup cans. At a time of increasingly divided economic distribution between rich and poor the Sotheby’s auction may well be seen in terms of a purposeful confusion of the object form of art with the lustful desires and reckless cash splurges that characterise the highest end of twenty-first century capitalist consumer markets. The global demonstration of wealth by the upper echelons is something that has burgeoned astonishingly over the past few years – whether purchasing football clubs, diamonds, designer wardrobes, art works or indeed art galleries it makes for a riotously crude spectacle, and it is a spectacle that Hirst taps into with a sale that featured the same levels of conspicuous vulgarity as a WAG parading the shopping streets of Liverpool in a sparkling pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos. Given its particular timing, taking place on the very day that the Lehman Brothers crashed in New York, the Sotheby’s stunt has demonstrated in crude, garish colour and in unmistakably simple terms how out of touch the ostentatious wealthy are from the rest of the world.
Perhaps we might come to see the Beautiful Inside My Head auction less as a purely affirmative, brash money-making scheme and more as an act of resistance traced through ironic mimicry. There is a chance that Hirst is responding to his world with more developed poignancy than was first thought. Yet one must recognise that Hirst’s sale has also helpfully provided a series of alternative investments for those looking to preserve their fortunes in a time of penetrating financial instability. As such the auction must also be seen as a means of perpetuating money divides. If, as Germaine Greer has suggested, the sale is as much a part of the art as the object itself then anyone thinking critically about Hirst’s art may also legitimately concern themselves with how the sale money is spent. Whether Hirst the artist is reaping money from the rich in the name of the poor, or whether Hirst the nouveau riche entrepreneur is gripped in the intoxicating delirium of capitalist greed is yet to be determined. It all hangs in the balance of those freshly acquired millions.
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This post was written by Laura Hayhurst-France