Goodbye to all That
2008 was an early end to a decade with no name. The post millennium? The new century? The decadent decade, perhaps? It was an entire era of price without value, a zeitgeist that artists would surely try to capture, symbolically. But how to do it and still sell your work? Perhaps Damien Hirst knew how?
Damien Hirst is very rich and he is not stupid. His most daring work of art was an elaborate joke that could have become a symbol of this decade that closed down early – a platinum and diamond-crusted real human skull, the world’s most vulgar trophy. Like a gorilla hand ashtray or an elephant foot umbrella stand, this $100 million decorative, anatomical, bling trinket needed to be sold to someone very rich and very stupid for it to be complete, a tasteless prize that was bought and therefore self-awarded rather than given.
Who would be the recipient of this severed head which was completely covered in money, but in less money ($25M) than its asking price ($100M)? Would it be a Russian oligarch, a Manhattan property tycoon, a member of the Saud family, a London hedge fund manager, a vapid LA Youtube celebrity or any other of the monstrous avatars of the decadent decade. Sadly, even the diamond skull was a flop, and was rumored to have been bought by Hirst himself, to save face. Like the hedge fund managers, Hirst became rich but didn’t leave the legacy he wanted, and the contemporary art market, which peaked with his $170M takings at the “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sale, was merely a bubble created by the recently rich who wanted new stuff rather than antiques and wished for the million dollar art equivalent of fast food, to buy taste, immediately.
But this bubble was particularly symbolic. The contemporary art market was leveraged beyond real estate and stocks and artists were part of the culture they could have been dissecting and rebelling against, they were collaborators rather than renegades. The sudden demise of famous living artists tells a better story than the art itself ever could.
“While British house prices took six years to double at the start of this century, contemporary art managed it in just one, 2006-07. (Over the same period, old masters went up by just 7.6 per cent and British 17th to 19th century watercolours actually lost value.) Contemporary art in the emerging economies did even better. The value of its sales in China increased by 983 per cent in one year (2005-06). In Russia they rose 2,365 per cent in five years (2000-05), while its stock market increased by “only” about 300 per cent…The Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang saw his work appreciate 6,000 times, from $1,000 to $6m (1999-2008); work by the American artist Richard Prince went up 60 to 80 times (2003-2008). The German painter Anselm Reyle was unknown in 2003; you could have picked up one of his stripe paintings for €14,000. Now he has a studio with 60 assistants turning them out for about €200,000 each.”