Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Golden Calf

Artists can only be judged by posterity, but in order for the artist to have work for posterity to judge, s/he has to sustain a career and a livelihood in the present.

One can either get family or family resources to support one (Van Gogh, Cezanne, Constable); obtain the patronage of the powerful (Michelangelo had the Medici and the Popes; the Abstract Expressionists had the CIA); or grub a living on the art market like most artists.

Apparently, the story is that underbidders kept Damien Hirst’s prices buoyant at his recent Sotheby’s auction, which achieved the fantastic sum of £111million. I don’t know why people think this is nefarious; it seems a fairly good price test, in that if you don’t get an overbidder on your ‘underbid’ you are stuck with the piece at the price you bid.

And it’s not as if Damien is the first artist in history to do this. Back in the 17th century, Rembrandt caused a sensation when an etching of his reached the then extraordinary sum of 100 guilders at auction – even today, it is still known as the hundred guilder print. What is less known is that Rembrandt bought it himself, purely for the PR value of the high price and to benchmark the value of his work in the marketplace.

It’s pretty absurd to criticise an artist for acting like a corporation – basically, artists are business people who are producing products for sale. In the case of successful artists like Damien Hirst, they have an employee payroll to support too.

On Hirst’s inherent value as an artist, I’m keeping an open mind. He clearly plays the spotlight deliberately and ostentatiously disses his own work, which conceptual as it is is open to attack from critics.

However, he has consistently been in the epicentre of the zeitgeist since he first appeared on the scene. The Sotheby’s auction was a vertiginously high-stakes game – perhaps just too risky if money was all he thought about?

And the fact that a work called The Golden Calf sold for over £10million in the same week Western capitalism’s financial markets collapsed is just too beautiful and ironic for words. For that alone, a place in Art History must be assured.

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