Potter: Snarkiness about sharkiness misses the point

The world’s Damien Hirsts offer a service, luring squillionaire cash away from ‘real’ art

As the credit crunch veered out of control last month, taking out pedestrians on Wall Street and Main Street and knocking over banks like tenpins, the contemporary art market was ticking along handsomely. In a two-day sale in mid-September, Sotheby’s of London auctioned off 223 works by the former bad boy of British art, Damien Hirst. When the gavel finally fell on the last lot, Hirst was $200 million to the good, a record haul for an auction devoted to a single artist.

Not all in the art world were impressed. Particularly unimpressed was the great critic Robert Hughes, who wrote a magnificently sour piece for the Guardian in which he declared that the auction’s only remarkable aspect was that it revealed the yawning chasm between the prices for Hirst’s work and his actual talent. He called Hirst a “pirate” whose only skill is his ability to bluff and flatter the dumb, ignorant, and rich, and blamed him for almost single-handedly creating the cult of artist-as-celebrity, and feeding the “irrational faith in a continuous rise in prices.”

There is no question Damien Hirst is a genius at both self-promotion and self-enrichment. He’s been riding a bull market in contemporary art for over a decade now. Earlier this year the Times of London pegged his net worth at US$364 million—and that was before his landmark auction at Sotheby’s.

Hughes is also right about the parallels between the world of high art and high finance. Both appear to be bubble-driven markets, sustaining absurdly inflated prices based on the expectation that prices will endlessly spiral upward. Over the past decade, the Mei Moses All Art index (a sort of TSX for art investments) has outperformed bonds and bills, and in the first half of this year it gained a solid 7.4 per cent even as the S&P 500 was enduring double-digit declines.

But even this spirited bull appears to be flagging. The art market typically lags about six months to a year behind the stock market, and there are signs of a softening in prices for contemporary art. Just this week, an unfinished portrait of the painter Francis Bacon by his friend Lucian Freud sold for $11.1 million. Preposterous money by any earthly standard, but well short of the $14.3 million it was expected to fetch.

As a businessman, Damien Hirst has impeccable instincts, given the auction’s timing. What about his art? His works include the spot paintings, photorealist drawings of pharmaceuticals, and those notorious installations involving dead and dismembered animals. His most famous installation is a 14-foot stuffed and pickled tiger shark, bought for $12 million in 2005 by a hedge fund billionaire from Connecticut.

Hughes hates all of it. “The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst’s work that shoves it into the multi-million-pound realm is ludicrous,” he says. But there is a special magic attached to Hirst’s work. That magic is the spectacularly successful brand known as Damien Hirst. And for those to whom the brand is successfully marketed—hedge fund types, of course, but anyone else who happens to be cash-rich but taste-poor—it makes his products worth every cent.

In a recent book about contemporary art, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, York University business professor Don Thompson observes that “there is almost nothing you can buy for $12 million that will generate as much status and recognition as a branded work of contemporary art.” As he says, some people think a Lamborghini is vulgar, and lots of people can afford yachts. But put a Damien Hirst dot painting on your wall, and the reaction is, “Wow, isn’t that a Hirst?”

The point is, Hirst is not selling art, he’s selling a cure for rich people with severe status anxiety. Hughes says of the shark, “One might as well get excited about seeing a dead halibut on a slab in Harrods’ food hall,” which is a fancy way of saying “my pet monkey could do that.” But snarkiness over sharkiness isn’t serious art criticism, and judging Hirst’s work by the criteria of technical skill, artistic vision, and emotional resonance is like complaining the Nike swoosh is just a check mark.

Hughes does have one serious concern about the “Hirst effect.” With skyrocketing prices, public museums and galleries are being repeatedly outbid by individuals or corporations. “And when you have some Russian squillionaire who started buying art three minutes ago but has the GNP of Georgia in his pocket, how can museums compete?”

But you can’t complain contemporary art is fatuous and dull, and then lament it is being bought up and hidden away in private collections—this restaurant is terrible, and the portions are so small. If anything, the Damien Hirsts of the world provide a valuable service, luring squillionaire money away from the real art that public institutions are after.

In any case, the financial crisis is resulting in corporate art dumping—Lehman Brothers just announced it will sell off its collection of 3,500 pieces. As all of this big-time contemporary art floods onto the market, public institutions will be able to pick up such major brands as Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, and yes, Hirst at fire-sale prices—an irony that even Robert Hughes might appreciate.

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