Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Worship this

My email tray has been jumping this evening with press releases about the art market, top and bottom. Monet's Le bassin aux nymphéas apparently made £40,921,250 / ($80,451,178) at Christie's. Er, so what?

Elsewhere, the media is effervescing over news that Damien Hirst has decided to sell a load of new stuff at Sotheby's rather than use his two main dealers, White Cube and Gagosian. That's marginally more interesting, but only by a whisker.

This has been reported as a maverick and innovative decision on Hirst's part, but actually it's perfectly understandable. According to some newspapers, Hirst has apparently realised that auctions are "a democratic way to sell art." That might have been true thirty-five years ago, before the buyer's premium, the insider trading, the chandelier bidding (how long have you got?). But today auctions are shadier and more ethically negotiable than ever, which doubtless partly explains Hirst's decision to get a bit deeper into bed with them. You know, take the pyjamas off this time and snuggle up nice and close.

The reality is that Hirst is more powerful than his dealers and so is in a position to deny them the vastly reduced percentage they levy for the privilege of representing him. Other less successful artists still forego 50% or more. The internet, still in its infancy, will impact on this in due course. Everything changes and nothing stays the same. The art market's as mad as a bottle of crisps.

Meanwhile I know a number of artists who have chosen to bypass their galleries now that their work has begun to sell internationally, preferring to take control of their own commissions, manage their own careers. For those with a flair for the paperwork and the communications issues, this invariably proves infinitely preferable to handing over ridiculous sums to dealers, many of whom are ignorant about art and care only about how much money they can syphon off an artist's creative gift. Oh no, Leonard Cohen's not the only one to feel the pinch.

My earliest introduction to the history of art was a family bible illustrated with plates of Old Master paintings, which included Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf. Hirst's The Golden Calf (right), which is to be sold at Sotheby's later this year with an estimate of £12 million, is presumably intended as a symbol of the art market's idolatrous worship of cash. No, subtlety was never his strong point.

Of course, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he destroyed the golden calf that Aaron had fashioned from the Israelities' bling. Hirst's calf, however, like the shark he made earlier, will presumably self-destruct.

The current trend of artists cocking a snook at the very art market that is feathering their nest is wearing a bit thin. Yesterday I read of an 'urban art' sale held by a provincial UK auction house jumping on the street graffiti bandwagon. Among the lots was a work entitled Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge. This might be read as a prophetic note to the art trade in general. But it could backfire judging by the sums being paid for work by some of these street artists, few of whom are likely to stay the course once the market turns. And let's face it, it will. Many of them will end up as gum turds, expectorated back onto the sidewalk of the streets whence they came.

The mixed media on cardboard work shown left, entitled Red Lips, by Adam Neate (born 1978), fetched £40,000. Neate is a self-taught "free street artist", i.e. he paints pictures on cardboard which he then leaves in the street (mostly East London) for people to pick up and take home.

Adam's largesse is being handsomely repaid. There are 23 auction results for him listed on Artnet, the earliest being last October. Where will he be in ten years time when the lipstick's worn off?

(Hirst pic: Prudence Cummings/Sotheby's)

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