It’s definitive: Rubbish = Art

bacon_rubbish.jpgA month ago we did a piece commenting on the absurdity of a small UK country auction house selling leftovers from Francis Bacon’s studio floor and calling it Art. Well, the market has spoken. Rescued from a garbage bin by a local electrician, the discarded “Study for a Portrait”, estimated at an already high  £12,000 to  £18,000, sold for  £400,000 before buyer’s premium.  £400,000. That makes it hard to simply write this off as memorabilia. (Total proceeds were  £965,490. Pre-sale estimates ranged from a realistic  £30,000 to a very optimistic  £500,000. The range in pre-sale estimates is, in itself, a good indication of how difficult it was to estimate the ‘collection’s’ value.)

hirst_stalin.jpgWhen last we broached this topic we also made passing reference to a certain “Damien Hirst Stalin”, sold at Sothebys for  £140,000. In this case, Hirst helped out his friend, writer AA Gill, dispose of an unwanted Soviet era portrait of Stalin that Christie’s had refused to sell. One hastily painted, off centre, red spot later, and Christies accepted the new Damien Hirst into a contemporary art sale with alacrity (although it was Sothebys that eventually sold it), and again the market responded warmly.

In the first case, Bacon’s clear intentions have been ignored, and works he never intended to be seen, let alone sold, have been designated Art. In the second, an artist’s intention to poke fun at the market succeeded royally. And the result is again labelled Art.

In both cases it is the name of an artist that has turned rubbish into Art. The name alone. Should we care?

7 thoughts on “It’s definitive: Rubbish = Art”

  1. Ian, this is a perfect juxtaposition of two cases that hold a mirror to a frothy market that will pounce on anything that offers a hint of value and relevance. I’m no great fan of Damien Hirst, but his picture is by far the more interesting of the two. Pulling stuff out of dumpsters is easy. In the case of the red dot besotted Stalin, a geniune cheeky artistic intelligence is at work. It raises more questions and pushes more buttons that most of Hirst’s other pictures. One thought experiment is to ask if the picture will be valued highly in, say, fifty years. Will the red dot validate the Stalin portrait, or vice versa?

    One imaginable version of the future would see Stalin portraits being more highly prized than late 20th c. Brit art stars. Hirst’s reputation may fade over the decades into oblivion, a victim of overexposure and fashion’s inecssant need to press forward. Meanwhile, wealthy Russian collectors, in a kind of nostalgic revival, could rediscover Socialist Realist portraiture. Will people dare to remove the red dot? In which Moscow museum should the piece righly hang? Will Hirst’s recontextualization be seen as a witty Duchampian gesture, or as an act of regrettable artstic vandalism?

    Thank you, Damien Hirst, for creating a kind of philosophical time capsule. We’ll get back to you in 2057.

  2. One factual issue: I’m not sure why the Guardian keeps citing that £500,000 figure which Ian repeated above. My quick calculation based on the online catalogue says the high estimate was more like £58,000 or so. The error was in the Guardian’s original preview of this auction and it apparently remains, as journalists say, “a fact far too good too check.”

    Having picked that nit, there’s an irony here: The Hirst piece has his imprimatur, but has virtually none of his “hand” in it; the Bacons are all him, but have no imprimatur (if anything it has an anti-imprimatur). Is there a difference to the market? Apparently not.

    In the Guardian’s review I was startled by this quote from Chris Ewbank, who owns Ewbank Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers: “The best judges of art are not the artists themselves. The fact that these paintings were discarded does not mean that they are not of value.”

    And now we get right back into the issue of what level of control an artist should have over his or her work. For an exegesis on this see Ed_W re Richard Prince (and the comments that followed). And while I agree with Ed’s point there that it’s weird for an artist to sell work and later declare it no longer part of the oeuvre, work that the artist openly classed as trash (and certainly never sold) seems like a different matter.

    I’m curious what conclusions contemporary artists will draw from this episode. I imagine it’s a nightmare to think that people might one day paw through your studio and auction off all the stuff you deliberately kept out of circulation.

  3. Following up on Marc’s trail, my answer would be that the artist’s call on any of his or her work should be the final answer to whether or not it should be shown to the world or not. And this should be respected, whether or not the work is worth anything or even if we don’t agree that it is a sound decision. Of course, I’m being idealistic here, but since when is art making not about having ideals? Any good artist in his or her right mind would throw out works that fail their own personal criteria, and who else to know this but the artist?

    I guess it boils down to respecting the artist’s own initiative in being sensible and tough enough to edit their message, and this process is just as crucial to the actual creation of the works themselves. Imagine a sci-fi situation where artists HAVE to show every single piece of work they create, and that EVERY piece of work they make MUST see the light of day. What a fucking disaster that would be! We’ll be stuck with all these crap! I say burn… at F451…

  4. Speaking as a writer, I like the idea of being edited. The culture of writing is all about the creative tension between the author and the editor (if and when this works). Many writers today lament the disappearance of strong editors. A world in which writers decide “whether or not the work is worth anything,” as Heman put it, would bury us under a sea of books.

    Art culture works precisely in the reverse. Editing is understood to be a perversion, an unacceptable imposition on creative freedom. Needless to say, this whole idea is a modern invention.

    The price today’s artists pay for this absence of an editing and controlling function surrounding the creative act is that the filtering happens later, in reaction to the finished piece, which is allowed to go out into the world. This filtering function is increasingly fulfilled by the marketplace, much to the chagrin of artists, who would like to be free of constraints in every respect. Alas…

  5. Tom Flynn at ArtKnow’s post today, “Bacon in a dumpster: I smell a rat,” makes an interesting and extremely market-relevant point.

    A large number of the original series of Damien Hirst’s famous spot prints have already been disowned by the artist – effectively ‘cancelled’ – on account of damage sustained to them while en route to market after printing. But already these have gained added commmercial lustre purely because Hirst has disowned them. A black market in these prints is now thriving. However hard he may try, Hirst cannot control the market, not even the market for seemingly insignificant material tenuously connected to him, such is his celebrity.

    I’m betting these will be a nightmare in 50 years, when the difference between aging and original damage is less clear. Certificates are pretty easy to fake, sadly.

  6. Another quote — and a beautiful term I hadn’t heard before, “garbology” — from Julian Bell’s article on Francis Bacon, from the current (May 10) issue of The New York Review of Books:

    “When the would-be cultural guerilla A.J. Weberman coined the term ‘garbology’ in 1971, he was teasingly dignifying his habit of sneaking around celebrities’ refuse in a quest for telltale signs of ideological duplicity. (Had Bob Dylan turned from political protest to heroin addiction? Had Muhammad Ali been snacking on pork? Surely, sooner or later, the used needle, the emptied meat can would turn up!) Garbology has since been taken into the fold of academic respectability by archaeologists who recognize in it a fast-track variant on their own science. Object-based information is the great desideratum, from their perspective: distaste and decorum only form the fuzziest of qualifying considerations.”

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