The Emperor’s New Vitrine: Damien Hirst at Sotheby’s

The potency of Damien Hirst’s achievement still, after all these years, retains the capacity to astonish.

For instance, how is it that, a cultural lifetime now separating us from the days of Freeze (1988), the Turner Prize (1995) and Sensation (1997) — relationships with Saatchi, Gagosian and Jopling consumated and compromised apparently at will — BritArt’s 43-year old enfant terrible is still able, somehow, not only to force the publicity department at Sotheby’s to churn out the most spectacular nonsense about ‘the leading artist of his generation’ and his ‘ambitious, exquisite, incredibly powerful’ work, but to press-gang dozens of mainstream journalists into the ranks of his PR division?

For we have been told, repeatedly and insistently over recent weeks, in the news stories and profiles and television news packages laid out in loving tribute at the artist’s feet, that Hirst’s decision to unload two years’ worth of his assistants’ work behind the podium at Sotheby’s, rather than through a gallery, was ‘groundbreaking’, a ‘gamble’, even — watch as Team Hirst reaches for an adjective that correlates with our current austere and moralising mood — ‘brave’.

We’ll pass, tactfully, over ‘groundbreaking’, if only because in 2004 Hirst flogged the fixtures and fittings of the Pharmacy restaurant, again through Sotheby’s, thus netting £11 million. And let’s leave ‘gamble’ aside for the moment, too.

The ‘bravery’, specifically, lies in the public nature of the sale, for apparently — who knew? — art sold at auction is priced in the most transparent, ‘democratic’ way possible. Writes Philip Hensher: ‘Art has to exist within a marketplace, and Hirst is not only brave but honest in exposing the value of his art to what the market thinks of it.’

Hirst, however, can afford to feel braver than most, as Sotheby’s are not asking him to pay the usual sellers’ commission (generally around 10 per cent of hammer price), while the arrangements regarding other costs often charged to the seller (photography, lavish catalogue production, publicity, launch events, the extravagant 11-day long view, etc) remain unclear, to me at any rate. Presumably he secured this concession on the grounds that dealers have long since taken only a 10 per cent commission or thereabouts on his sales, as opposed to the more normal 50 per cent dealer’s commission. In other words, it’s been quite a while since Hirst has had to play by the rules that govern other mortals’ art transactions. He congratulates himself on ‘opening the door for artists everywhere’ with this sale, yet one suspects that Sotheby’s wouldn’t put on a show like this for just any old painter who happened to stumble through the Bond Street doorway, clutching a canvas or two, reeking of linseed oil and unworldliness, hoping for the best.

Back to Hirst’s own sale, though. Sotheby’s, for their part, will collect the usual buyers’ premium of 25-20 per cent of hammer price. And clearly, given the famed transparency of the auction process, no one would possibly have any interest in setting low estimates there for the first-night ‘smashing’, spreading out the auction over two days and three sessions, or encouraging Hirst’s prices upwards in order to protect their own, perhaps marginally irksome ‘long’ Hirst position, or perhaps the prices of contemporary art more generally. (Anyone who thinks I’m being unduly cynical really ought to read this, and perhaps this too.)

In any event, played out against against what probably was, for many observers, the entirely enjoyable spectacle of Nemesis arriving for an overdue assignation with High Finance, Hirst’s ‘gamble’ was seen to pay off. ‘Banks fall over, art triumphs,’ enthused Sir Norman Rosenthal, gnawing compulsively on the hand that’s so often fed his curatorial career. But no matter how brutal the market correction, there’s always someone left, if not exactly raking it in, well then still somehow managing to keep the show on the road. And who to fill the role today, if not that talent forged amidst the pitiless proving fires of High Thatcherite triumphalism, the semi-youthful genius who out-marketed Saatchi himself, the one-man value-added industry whose BritArt brand simply will not, whatever is thrown at it, die?

Unlike any artist I’ve ever met, but very much like most people I know who like to position themselves as hard-nosed, cold-eyed and cynical children of the late 1980s, Hirst seems positively to enjoy discussing money. Here is he is a truly extraordinary interview with Waldemar Januszczak:

“The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most,” [Hirst] says. “I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive.” He compares a Prada outlet and an Oxfam shop. Why, in the world of shoes, do you pay more for a new pair from Prada, while in the world of art, the big money kicks in only when the shoes get to Oxfam?

The real answer, of course, is that while expensively-branded yet in fact ordinary shoes do indeed depreciate with age, a pair of pumps lovingly carved and crimped and stroked into life by the late Salvatore Ferragamo, just to pick a random example, gain in value quite considerably as the decades fly by — but entirely unbidden, the example itself raises issues of skill, craftsmanship, artistry, historical association, provenance and connoisseurship from which Hirst might be best advised to retreat in a hurry.

Even so, one might expects buyers in general to be slightly shocked by what Hirst is saying, which is that once one of his works has been sold at auction, its price should only go one way: down. Well, perhaps these notional, inscrutable buyers gain something from associating themselves with Hirst’s brisk assertion of his art’s disposability, its ultimate worthlessness, which is hard to quantify in money. Or perhaps they are simply not listening very closely, but rather just enjoying the companionable hum of Hirst’s publicity machine? Or perhaps so many of them are sufficiently clear that what they are buying is not really ‘art’, at least in the traditional sense of that overloaded word, that their ears are actually deaf to the jarring note?

In any event, just as the fact that Hirst has managed to sell quite a lot of his work at auction constitutes less a ‘triumph of art’ than a modest if lavishly-publicised success on the part of a particular marketing strategy (‘modest’ because although the sums realised look exciting, all those inputs — livestock, diamonds, vitrines, Frank Dunphy, all those skilled fabricators and assistants and heavy lifters, the hospitality laid on for collectors, the whole business of being seen to be Damien Hirst — must cost something too), then his decision to sell (again) through Sotheby’s says absolutely nothing about the imminent demise, or otherwise, of traditional art dealers. For while a conveyor-belt connecting Hirst’s assistants’ studios to Sotheby’s makes sense in terms of what Hirst’s now selling — a branded commodity, as it were — it makes very little sense in the case of much of the art market, contemporary work as much as Old Masters and everything in between.

And here again we come up against concepts which, although perhaps well known to Hirst, rarely feature in his rhetoric: trust, experience, sympathy, shared enthusiasms, reputation, integrity. Which is to say, at the risk of sounding insufficiently ‘commercial’, that for every dealer who’s in it for the money, there’s another sort of dealer out there who actually loves the work itself, whose enthusiasm for a particular period or style or artist is as infectious as it is inspiring, whose knowledge extends far beyond someone’s most recent press-release or price at auction, and who’s just as anxious to confer some piece of scholarly information, gratis, as to sell a work of art. Such dealers form part of a mini-universe of art-related socialising, discussion, debate, discovery and relevation, within which commerce constitutes a limited, if obviously significant avenue. Contrast this, on the other hand, with auction houses where works are not infrequently mis-described by ‘experts’ who know and indeed care not at all about them, catalogued amidst great cloudbursts of ignorance and confusion, and sometimes even hung wrong way up at the viewings. From a buyer’s point of view, then, there’s more to acquiring pictures than seeking something by a famous name, sold at the lowest possible price. For that reason, among others, the kind of art that requires knowledge, effort and persistence will always find a place for the best sort of dealer — even if the sort of work which can sell on PR alone may find it can do without them.

Hirst, of course, is very good at PR. In fact, he’s very good at most of what’s involved in marketing and selling his own work, which is why his career as meta-dealer in Hirst Enterprises, aided generously by many but dependent on none, came as no great surprise to anybody. Nor is it surprising, on reflection, to see the media so compliant to his whims, so enchanted by his least utterances or actions. Just as he needs them for his marketing, they need him to add a dash of recognisable celebrity, controversy, flashy cash and booster-ready Britishness to their cultural commentary, otherwise known as the ‘entertainment’ sections of newspapers and news programmes. Both know, I imagine, that were this cosy dance of cheek-to-cheek symbiosis to pause even for a moment, each would have to find a new dance partner pronto, or risk an embarassing fall. Ergo, Hirst is ‘brave’ — and will doubtless continue being ‘brave’, ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘the greatest artist of our generation’ as long as he keeps doing what he does best, however little that something may have to do with making art.

For the record, I’ve never hated Hirst’s work with quite the furious intensity that some critics — some of my favourite critics, as it happens — bring to the project. This deficiency, it must be said, relates less to any actual sympathy towards Hirst’s oeuvre, than to a general inability to become very bothered about him, full stop. Whatever I appear to have thought about the whole Saatchi circus here, I’m now quite happy to consign Hirst to his place as a signifier of period colour, existing purely to remind us of a moment, c. 1996, embedded in whatever matrix of political, cultural and personal history each of us brings to that equation.

The prospect of buying anything by Hirst, on the other hand, holds zero appeal. And here, it’s not just the lack of anything painterly or personal or even truly skilled in the increasingly lazy facture, not just an objection to the aesthetic meanness of works which have proved themselves unable to deepen or develop in front of the eyes, not even the realisation that whatever charge the best of them is capable of delivering works only as a one-off experience — thereafter rotting, perhaps, in the vitrine of subjective recollection until there’s nothing left but cloudy water and, perhaps, mild nausea. It’s not even the lack of beauty — of some sort of human order made out of experiential chaos, briefly heartening and life-affirming — although this, obviously, is a balefully glaring lacuna, too.

No, what really puts me off Hirst’s work is simply its calculated blandness. All those glib surfaces, the fairly obvious ideas, that air of edginess subsumed within blue chip, corporate collection-grade safety: for all the spots and spatters, diamonds and viscera, there’s not only nothing much here to see, but nothing at all to feel about any of it, except that familiar sensation of boredom. Hirst’s art marketing is, up to a point, interesting — Hirst’s art, alas, is not.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Emperor’s New Vitrine: Damien Hirst at Sotheby’s

  1. The voice of reason returns…
    So very nice to have you back.
    Here in the US it seemed to be the summer of Jeff Koons ~ talk about calculated blandness.

  2. fugitive ink

    What a nice thing to write – thanks.

    As for Jeff Koons – yes, quite.

    On reflection, one of the good thing about Hirst is that his existence makes it harder for British and European critics of Koons to blame everything that’s wrong with Koons’ whole project on the United States and its alleged crassness, materialism, shallowness, cult of celebrity, etc, etc.

    Who or what to blame instead? Dali and Warhol together, maybe?

    I can’t quite accept that the 1980s were in themselves at fault, as that much-maligned decade also gave us Peter Fuller’s ‘Modern Painters’, as well as a market lively enough to support some memorably lovely art (old and new), as well as a lot of overpriced, overhyped tat. Hmm.

  3. Very well put. I must say I thought Hirst was conducting the most brilliant act of liquidation through this auction. In hindsight his timing looks excellent – even if he did cut it a bit fine.

    I think the respect that does exist for Hirst is founded on his brilliance as a promoter, a reader and manipulator of markets and trends. He’s made a lot of people a lot of money and I’m including here not just those already well-endowed but quite a few artists who would otherwise be fairly poor. I would even give him some of the credit for getting Tate Modern launched.

    I agree that his art is somewhat beside the point – it’s a good product but in the sense that it’s amenable to marketing.

    BTW I’m the tweed chap. I also have an interest in art but from a less professional perspective than yours, I would guess.

  4. ‘The tweed chap’ indeed!

    Thanks for the comment – I’m so glad you liked the Hirst piece. And as for art, actually I’m just interested, too – no professional connections whatsoever, no more than with tweed, although that doesn’t stop me from having a point of view. 😉