Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Snakes on a plane: Damien Hirst takes off

There’s a scene in the cult movie Snakes on a Plane when Samuel L. Jackson declares, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

That pretty well summarises how I feel about Damien Hirst taking over the art market.

For a while earlier this week it seemed as though the entire global art market was holding its breath to see whether Hirst’s decision to cut out his dealers by consigning 200 lots of new work to Sotheby’s would effect a historic realignment of the tectonic plates underpinning the global art trade. Spectators were broadly divided between those privately hoping the sale would fall flat on its face, thereby ushering in a long-overdue correction in art prices, and those desperately hoping it would keep the party going and not blow a hole in all the overpriced stuff they’d already invested in.

Both positions were in some measure vindicated. Nobody can say for sure what really happened on Monday and Tuesday for there is no transparency clause in the Faustian contract between Sotheby’s and Hirst – two of the art world’s most shrewd and ruthless operators.

But broadly the experiment seemed to succeed. Certainly the consistent demand over the two days once again underscored the art market’s bizarre resistance to global economic storms. Some of the world’s biggest banks and insurance companies are filing for bankruptcy, global money markets are close to meltdown, homes are being repossessed in their thousands, and yet the art market continues to rise ever higher into the nanosphere like a rogue hot-air balloon powered by private capital.

The result of the Hirst sale will have delighted those who want the good times to keep on rolling. But every time the global art index enjoys yet another significant boost as it did in London on Monday evening, so there will be that much more pain when the downturn finally comes, and come it will.

The most incomprehensible thing about the Hirst phenomenon is how few discerning commentators are prepared to stand up and say what they really think – that most of this stuff is wretched tat. But such is the relentless power of the media and the clout of capital that a false consensus prevails. If you were to place what one might call, for want of a better term, “real art”, side by side with Hirst’s factory output, then aesthetic comparison becomes unthinkable.

Last week I enjoyed a tour of the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition in the erudite and entertaining company of the show’s curator Thorsten Oppen. It was one of the most enthralling exhibitions I have ever seen and I emerged enlightened and enriched into the rainy gloom of Bloomsbury.

From there I scootered across town to view the Hirst show at Sotheby’s. To describe this short journey as a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous would be the understatement of the year. As I entered one of the numerous galleries chock-full of formaldehyde vitrines and mass-produced spin and spot paintings, I overheard a plummy art lecturer addressing a gaggle of expensively-dressed ‘ladies who lunch’ as they circled one of the sale’s expected highlights – The Golden Calf (illustrated above left).

“Notice, as you move around the tank, the magnificent, hanging scrotum of the Charolais bull,” gushed the guide. “In my quieter moments I like to treasure the thrilling image of this frisky beast advancing purposefully on the ladies of the group.” He then gestured to a butterfly painting hanging nearby. “And this majestic piece surely belongs in the cupola of a baroque church in Rome.” Turning to one of the glamorous women in his party, he murmured lasciviously, “Imagine, Celia, this masterpiece hanging on the ceiling above the marital bed! What a thing to gaze upon on those evenings when the VCR has failed!”

Society dames lap up such Etonian double-entendres. But who was their breathless cicerone? Well, no names, no pack drill, but suffice to ponder how one can simultaneously hold down, among other roles, freelance Hirst cheerleader, art market journalist for the world’s leading art newspaper, and adviser on contemporary art investments for the world’s leading art investment fund. It is as revealing a symbol of the serpentine, compromised nature of the modern art market as one is likely to find.

Cue Samuel L. Jackson…

Golden Calf image courtesy Sotheby's