Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The Non-Redemptive Power of Art
As I quietly watch the world unravel from my mountainside perch in southwest Virginia, one question keeps coming up for me: is the present ruination of the world built into our humanity? Things may be falling apart, as the poet said, mere anarchy unleashed as far as the eye can see, the center no longer holding, but the art market carries on oblivious, lunging ever forward with kangaroo speed. Way back in the 1500’s, Nostradamus predicted that only Ibiza will survive the Apocalypse, but clearly he was wrong. The way things go now, the art market will also be left standing, side by side with Ibiza.
In a spring sale at Sotheby's, a painting by Mark Rothko went for $72 million. But even that mind-altering sum isn't the half of it. A 2007 sculpture by English artist Damien Hirst, titled (ironically?) "For the Love of God,"-- an 18th-century skull, cast in platinum and encrusted with 8,601 diamonds which cost about $20 million to produce--was sold to an investment consortium for $100 million. A projected two-year tour of major museums around the world will further augment the sculpture's value, making it resalable later for an even larger sum. Incidentally, coincidentally, the artist is part of the investment consortium.
If I let go into the movement of my own consciousness, something about this miscreant icon suggests the ultimate folly of our times. Perhaps the artist meant to create a kind of luxurious stink bomb, thrown at what Navajos call "the glittering world," admittedly a world on its last legs. Or, perhaps he was taking a pot shot at the corpse of Susan Sontag, who once stated that "There is no culture without a standard of altruism, of regard for others." For in Hirst's universe, altruism and regard for others most surely does not include animals.
Take the case of the decaying tiger shark, floating in a tank of 224 gallons of formaldehyde. It is one of Hirst's most well known works, called "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." After 14 years in that glass tank, defying gravity, the tiger shark was disintegrating. Last year, five men and one woman donned hazmat suits, black rubber gloves, and breathing masks, and in the abandoned airplane hangar that serves as one of Hirst's studios, set about removing the defunct shark and replacing it with a new one, 13 feet long.
The original shark had been caught and killed by a fisherman in Australia, explicitly for Hirst in 1991. But eventually decomposition occurred, because the shark's insides had not been properly injected with formaldehyde to preserve it. So its skin grew wrinkled; the solution in the tank grew murky. Various patchwork efforts at restoration failed to work.
Enter one of those hedge-fund managers now turned collector, billionaire Steven A. Cohen, who bought the work from the English collector Charles Saatchi, paying $8 million for the ailing work. At that point, Hirst decided he needed to replace the shark, and Cohen offered to pay for it. Another unsuspecting tiger shark was killed and then dispatched from Australia in a specially built 20-foot freezer that took almost two months to arrive.
Now artists and conservators argue about whether the replacement can have the same status as the original. Nobody debates the fate of the sharks which gave up their lives for the sake of art. It still stuns.
Hirst is the winner of Britain's prestigious Turner Prize, which he received in 1995 for a cow and a calf cut into sections and exhibited in a series of vitrines, called "Mother and Child Divided." "I've also tried to do a Pieta with cows," he once told a critic in the New York Times. Some of his canvases are covered with real flies and butterflies. His studio is filled with freezers stuffed with dead animals, acquired mostly from taxidermists. If a prize ever existed for the most unecological artist on the planet, Hirst would surely win that one as well.
All this suggests a new kind of bone-eroding art with radioactive potential, of a different order from the kind we used to know and love. Hirst's glass-and-steel medicine cabinets filled with rows of colored pills lined up on shelves sold for $7.4 million at Christie's in New York last spring, and a similar version went for $19.2 million in London a month later. His "spot" paintings of colored circles, of which he has done nearly a thousand, sell for more than $1 million to the new cadre of hedge-fund collectors, who can sell them a month later for double the price. All this has been tabulated, measured, and proved, in a way that sets hearts pounding in the art world.
In a recent New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins of New York art dealer and cultural impresario Jeffrey Deitch, himself a collector to be reckoned with and definitely nobody's fool, Deitch manages to capture in just a few comments something of the preposterousness of the scene over which he presides like an anointed prophet: "More than any artist, Damien has used the art market as a medium. You could dismiss this as over-the-top commercial, but he's achieved a lot of cultural influence and power by using the art market so cleverly. He's using the power of the money to enhance the impact of his imagery and his art."
Let me ask my question one more time: is the present ruination of the world built into our humanity? Years ago I used to wonder and struggle and write with a different question in mind: what does it really mean to be a "successful" artist working in the world today? And is the image that comes to mind one we can support and believe in? In today's world, that question is obsolete. Now the lucky artist who understands how wealth can manufacture more wealth will earn him, like Gatsby, the epithet "Great."
Damien Hirst flits through our culture like a bad angel, zealously playing his fiddle while Rome is burning. It may be that every crumbling empire needs to have its own Nero. Someone virtuosic in artistic endeavors and chariot racing, someone who always wins and does not tolerate any rivals. The image above is by digital artist Simone Paterson, entitled "Hirst As Nero."