When Formaldehyde and Finance Make Great Art

Tracey Barnett ©September 2008

The bad news: We’re all going to burn in financial hell as our life savings melt into a withered, shrunken pineapple lump in a matter of months. Sorry.

The good news: Artist Damien Hirst will probably be able to shout us lunch first.

The quintessential YBA, or Young British Artist, as he has been dubbed, had a moment last week, that should live on in some kind of beautifully macabre, twisted collision between art, commerce and sit com.

When Rome was burning—okay, maybe Wall Street and the worldwide financial cousie-bro markets in between– Damien Hirst was sitting behind his Mr. Magoo glasses watching a £111 million pound wall of money rain down into his hot little hands on the very same day.

In a move that undoubtedly made his dealers in New York and London drop their canapés, Damien Hirst, arguably the world’s richest living artist, did something extraordinary– or just potentially idiotic.

Hirst took 223 of his works, deliberately bypassed his gallery owners, and deposited them for auction directly at Sotheby’s. No living artist had the audacity to try a stunt like this ever before.

He was either going to shoot himself terminally in the foot if he didn’t get significant enough bids to maintain the previous value of his work, or he was going to give gallery owners worldwide collective angina if he pulled this off successfully without their help.

Traditionalists were having conniptions: The man was flooding his own market by releasing too many works at once. Where was the careful, guiding hand of his gallery to make sure the work didn’t end up in some third world money baron’s loo instead of the right museums? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. It has been rumored that even Hirst’s two gallery owners guaranteed prices for the top 40 lots just to protect the value of the pieces they currently represent.

But this isn’t just any artist. This is Damien Hirst, man of the moment. The man who first gave the world a dead shark pickled in formaldehyde inside a glass case and called it, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.

This is the man who took a human skull, encrusted it with 8601 diamonds worth £15 million pounds, then sold it back to himself, his gallery and a consortium of other investors at over three times the price. Hirst himself feared, and was eventually delighted, when he observed that the piece now looks a little like a £50 million pound disco ball.

He called it “For the Love of God.” In some kind of gorgeous denial of the opulence and death sparkling straight at the viewer, the title actually came from his mother always asking, “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?”

Did the auction fly? You betcha. Sotheby’s had more people turn up [21,000] than any pre-view in their history. New-moneyed global billionaires in Russia and the Middle East were the biggest bidders. The total sale exceeded Hirst’s own expectations by a whopping £46 million.

But after all this market mayhem, the real beauty of this grand artistic gesture rested on just one strange juxtaposition for me; On the very day that Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG were tumbling the world’s financial house of cards, Damien Hirst had gathered up all the newest, showiest, bull-ish wealth in the world and told it to bid on literally– a golden calf.

In a wonderful collusion between art, bling and the bulging wallets of today’s wealthy with their illusion of a never-ending Midas touch, Hirst had taken a real 1320-lb bull calf, dipped its horns and hooves in 18-carrot gold and sold it directly to the highest bidder.

Only Hirst could have contemplated something so audacious, so greedy, so impolitic, and so perfectly timed.

In the same moments that the hammer slammed down on Hirst’s golden bull, the world’s bull market got hammered apart. Brash, opportunistic and unfailingly successful– patron and artist became a mirrored reflection of each other.

Maybe Hirst’s real talent last week wasn’t necessarily in the pieces that he and his 180 staff make, many of which he never actually touches himself; it was the fine art of capturing an indelible snapshot of our time.

Like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons before him, Hirst’s work is as much a commentary on the very people that feed them, those who worship at the temple of money, as it is a play on using art as a commodity.

And just where was the shark himself when the hammer fell in tandem on the world’s financial markets and Hirst’s 220 pieces of work, netting a total that easily beat even Picasso’s previous record sale? Damien Hirst was faraway, getting updates by phone from his millionaire accountant, as he played snooker. How very now.


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