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Stuffed sharks, mega-bucks and trophy art

November 10, 2009 in Sonder kategorie

Nog ‘n baie interessante mening oor kontemporere installasiekuns.
January 16, 2008


Richard Morrison


If you read no other book about art in your life, read the one that’s gripped me like a thriller for the past two days. Just published by Aurum Press, it’s called The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. And the first surprise is that its author, Don Thompson, is not an art specialist, but a Harvard economist. When you read the book, however, all becomes clear. What Thompson does – lucidly, and with remarkable restraint in the circumstances – is take the lid off what he calls “the curious economics of contemporary art and auction houses”. Curious is one word to describe it. Mad would be my choice.

The book’s title is also its starting point. Thompson sets out to discover why someone thought it was fulfilling and rational to spend $12 million buying a dead shark that had been turned into an artwork by Damien Hirst. But answering that seemingly simple question takes him into a world in which “normal” values – about life, art and money – seem to have been turned topsy-turvy.

He looks at the buyers for “trophy” art: billionaires such as the American asset manager Steve Cohen, who bought the shark with what, for him, was loose change (it would have taken him five days, Thompson estimates, to have earned the $12 million price tag). He examines the motivation of these super-rich culture vultures – who are, incidentally, increasingly numerous: the world had 946 billionaires at the last count. He discusses how they feed their egos by outbidding rivals; how they flaunt wealth and status by filling their mansions with the most outrageously priced artistic sensations; and, most of all, how they apparently need to signal to the outside world, and perhaps to themselves, that they aren’t mere money-making robots – that they actually possess a soul, even if it’s one that manifests itself by the curious device of acquiring art that Charles Saatchi deems to be “hot”.

Then he looks at Saatchi himself, and other super-collectors and dealers who have the clout to “brand” artists and thus raise their market value tenfold – or, conversely, to “punish” (Thompson’s term) artists by expelling them from the anointed fold. “You are nobody in contemporary art until you have been branded,” Thompson declares. And he goes on to examine the deals struck between powerful collectors and public galleries, whereby the former effectively bankroll exhibitions of their collected artworks in the latter, knowing that the public exposure and status conferred by the gallery will enormously raise the value of the art they own.

After that, Thompson looks at the few artists (maybe one in every thousand) lucky enough to be elevated into this stratospheric existence – of whom Hirst (estimated worth: £100 million at the age of 40) is the prime instance. In what sense do they “create” artworks that unnamed assistants actually paint, cut up or assemble? In what sense is a buyer acquiring a unique work, if the artist feels free to create near-identical pieces for other buyers (as Warhol did and Hirst does)? Is the genius all in the labelling and marketing? Is it all a big con? Should we lament the present confusion between cash price and artistic worth – or, as Thompson puts it, “the ease with which art history is now rewritten with a cheque-book”? Is the success of a few superstar artists good or bad for the rest – those who scrape by on the poverty line, yet produce art that may well be far richer in significance than some of the conceptual piffle churned out by the big names?

Here’s one more question. If people are being hoodwinked into bidding huge sums for rubbish, what does that say about the ethics of the auction houses? Thompson exposes the subterfuges and sophistries they use to ratchet up bids and increase their commissions – some of them jaw-droppingly sneaky. “The art world,” he says, “is the least transparent and least regulated major commercial activity in the world.” After reading the evidence he amasses, you can’t disagree. Some of what goes on in the plush salerooms of Mayfair and Manhattan would make a dodgy Essex secondhand car-dealer gasp with admiration.

Part of me says that what the mega-rich do with their money is up to them. And if a few artists can earn a few quid (or $12 million) by flogging dead sharks or used underwear to the gullible glitterati of Beverly Hills, good luck to them. But there are wider implications here that Thompson, fine economist though he is, only hints at.

First, whenever the public reads that a pile of detritus labelled “art” has been flogged for millions, or won the Turner Prize, cynicism about the value of high-brow culture intensifies. So does the feeling among ordinary people that the arts are “not for them”. That’s a shame, to put it mildly. Secondly, whenever some clueless Russian oil oligarch or Californian software mogul is soft-soaped into paying crazily over the odds for a modest Klimt or Klee, that inflates the price of all Klimts and Klees and makes it impossible for public galleries to compete on our behalf.

And thirdly, whatever happened to the idealistic notion that people went into the arts because they believed there was more to life than making money? As Thompson points out, the contemporary art market has now degenerated into “a competitive high-stakes game, fuelled by great amounts of money and ego”. But if modern art is all amount money and status, what’s the point of it? As Warhol once observed, you might as well put all your dosh in a bag labelled “Look how rich I am!” and hang it on your wall. It would make the same statement.

Or, for upwards of £50 million, you could buy Hirst’s latest headline-grabbing creation: a platinum cast of a human skull embedded (though not by himself) with 8,601 diamonds. Wittingly or unwittingly, he has created the perfect metaphor for the brain-dead, money-fixated world of modern art that Thompson so devastatingly exposes.

14 antwoorde op Stuffed sharks, mega-bucks and trophy art

  1. Angelor het gesê op November 10, 2009

    Indeed Palomino, sad, living rich, and dying poor,.. very very sad..

  2. angelor, Damien hirst gaan definitief die arm doodgaan nie! (As jy nou van geld praat, as jy van ander dinge praat…)

  3. Ek geniet jou blogs, Palomino. Dis soos om klas te loop – maar sonder om te hoef eksamen skryf.

  4. Dankie Vormpies!

  5. Die hoop beskaam nie, Katryn!

  6. Hehe! Ja-aa! Julle beter mooi lees, ek gaan vrae vra hierna.

  7. nice, but the artists you mentioned did not start out as brand names. i think its great that artistscan actually rule the rich with their pricetags. the Hirst scull was sold. and his followup oil paint exhibition [done by himself] was shot to the poohouse. but a rich rich rusian bought all the paintings for millions and millions. o, we poor artists. if only we all had the guts to to what Hirst, koons ect do…

  8. Dit vat nie net guts nie Hardy! Hulle kry sponsorship ook. dink jy Hirst het vir die grondstowwe van daardie skull uit sy eie sak betaal? Weet jy wat kos platinum en diamante?

    Maar ek stem saam, van die kritiek is onregverdig, veral oor die kopbeen. Dit is miskien die perfekte metafoor vir die brain dead money-fixated world of modern art, maar myns insiens gaan dit oor ‘n paar honderd jaar van nou af die selfde kulturele gewig dra as iets soos die Mapungubwe renosters.

    En hoekom is almal so opgeklits met die feit dat hy nie self die ding gemaak het nie? Dis tog ‘n eeue oue gebruik. Michelangelo en al daardie Renaissance-Meesters het helpers gehad wat vir hulle sekere dele van hulle paintings geskilder.

    En verseker het die kunstenaars nie as brand-names begin nie, maar hulle gebruik nou branding as ‘n voertuig. Alhoewel ek ook nie reken dat dit so ‘n groot sonde is nie.

    (Anyway, ek sal so gutsy wees as iemand my sponsor – wat dan beteken dat ons maar weer uitkom by geld)

  9. Angelor het gesê op November 10, 2009

    Yup palomino, ek verwys na die “kyk hoe ryk is ek” aspek, en verwys na die skriffie wat na iets lui wat so klink,.. “wat help dit as n mens die wereld verower, en sy eie siel verloor” Ek verkondig natuurlik nie dat geld n euwel is nie, maar dat die ego wat so dikwles daaraan gekoppel is wel is, so in kort, ek bedoel sad as die ou arm van gees moet sterf..

  10. Ja, en hierdie artikel le nogals baie dinge bloot, ne.

  11. czardas het gesê op November 11, 2009

    I do not understand buying any work from Damien Hirst.
    But I think I did see some of those stuffed Sharks playing in the semi-final against the Cheetahs.

  12. Hiehie! Maybe we should mount them in a tankful of formaldehyde? We would make a devastatingly deep statement and a lot of money!

  13. Palomino. Hierdie is een van die voorgeskrewe tekste wat ek gebruik vir die MBA studente by GIBS. Ek dink glad nie dis negatief oor Hirst nie. Thompson se uiteensetting van die belangegroepe wat kuns toeëien is briljant. Ek wil nog iewers eendag daaroorskryf. Ek hou van die akademiese kunsbeoordeling wat maar redelik druipstert uit die verhaal kom. Die sukses van Hirst speel af in ‘n dinamiese wêreld waar hy nuwe kunsmateriaal – finansiële instrumente – gebruik en die akademiese wêreld bly vashaak in opmerkings oor “verken aspekte van identiteit en gneder”… Sien uit na verdere gesprek.

  14. Wonderlik! Jislaaik, ek sal graag jou kursus wou doen. Ek moet se ek was bietjie gekneus omdat Thompson praat van DH se skedel as die perfekte metafoor vir die breindood, geldgefikseerde kunsestablishment, maar miskien is dit weliswaar nie so ‘n slegte uitspraak nie. Dit tesame met van die kommentare hieronder. Lyk my mens is of mal oor DH of jy haat hom, geen middeweg.

    Die skedel is vir my een van die grootste (grootse?) kontemporere werke wat tot nog toe geskep is en sal, eeue van nou af, dieselfde tipe kulturele gewig dra as iets soos die Mapungubwe renosters. (maar miskien trap ek hier ook in die einste establishment slaggat…ja, die art-for-arts-sake groep het nog baie wind in hulle seile)

    En ek weetnie hoekom almal so aangaan oor die haai nie…ek dink dis donners briljant!

    Ek gaan in elkgeval die boek vir my aanskaf en dit stukkir vir stukkie deurwerk…

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