The Hirstian knot

bimhf-hirst-with-the-goldDamien Hirst’s decision to sell 223 new pieces direct to auction at Sotheby’s on 15 and 16 September represents the breaking of an unwritten rule: thou shalt not defile your dealer. While threatening the very gallery system that helped to make him a household name by selling his work in the first place (and supposedly nurturing and protecting his interests too), Hirst’s solo venture simultaneously slopes the playing field firmly in favour of the artist. He’s not only temporarily freed himself from his artist-dealer honour code, but now attempting to exercise some influence, if not exactly control, over his own market.

It’s recently become clear that Hirst’s 100-strong production line of artisans are producing more than his London gallery can handle, which in turn suggests that he needs this new outlet (if not going so far as to prove that supply has outstripped demand just yet). But could this firesale of familiar-looking works not perhaps herald a brave new world for artists and turn out to be a good thing for the market, allowing some transparency and public visibility into how artist’s reputations are made, for example? Or will such sales be more like grisly art market entertainment, providing on-the-spot popularity contests and some gallows-style bating if the sales should flop disastrously?

There are even suggestions that Murakami will be the next to follow suit, signaling an even deeper shift of power from galleries to auction houses, which may then open the floodgates to similarly commercial-minded artists the world over (Chinese artists are already used to this practice I believe). Hirst has never played by the rules, famously flouting the usual 50/50 split with his galleries, but does this spell the end of the art market as we know it? He divides opinion like no one else, so let’s have a vote. He’s either Damien 666 – the devil in disguise – or Damien 999 (dial 911 in the US) – the art world’s very own emergency services, coming to save the day. Which way do you see it?

9 thoughts on “The Hirstian knot”

  1. He’s neither 666, nor 999. In fact, this brave world is not really new, and Hirst is at best a fast follower. The Chinese, the Indians and a small number of artists from Pakistan and Iran have been successfully plowing this field for at least 2-3 years. This has been hand in glove with aggressively expanding auction houses. In many instances they are working directly with artists and sometimes with local dealers and gallerists who themselves act as principals—buying from the artists and flipping at auction.

    Working with emerging artists from emerging markets I have a biased view on this phenomenon. In my eyes it has promoted the spectacular and photogenic over the thoughtful. And has led to many first class artists from India and China producing truckloads of commoditized Indianness and Chineseness for international consumption.

    Transparency works well in markets with perfect information. The art world is famously asymmetrical in the way knowledge is distributed, and indeed manufactured. I am not sure price transparency is the necessary tool for nurturing artists over long periods where they may not be producing conceptual bling. And it is because there will be so much ‘good art’ which is ‘unauctionable’ that I think this trend will mark a shift in the art world rather than a revolution.

  2. Okay, I’ll bite: contra Hammad, he’s both! (How’s that for equivocating?) Much of this depends on what we judge to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the ‘art market’, with ‘the end of the art market as we know it’, as Ossian states it, occupying the negative pole.

    If we look at this in terms of ‘territorialization’ (and it opposite number, which begins with a ‘de-‘), Hirst’s move, and the moves of those in the other Eastern markets, is a deterritorializing one for the artist (even though it’s a reterritorializing one for the auction house). In general, this is a good thing; it breaks up the bounding conditions of otherwise stagnated (ossified?) operations. It’s flux. Isn’t this desirable?

    The ‘end of the market as we know it’? I hope so. I’ve only known this market somewhat well for the past ten years, and even in that time it has probably changed to the point that my 1998 self wouldn’t recognize it at all. One shouldn’t lament such quick passages.

    The real question is whether this auction isn’t simply a daisy-cutter Hirst means to drop on all of his assembly-line output of the past twenty years. Sources tell me he’s fully onto his ‘Bacon-phase’: the private studio; the solitary genius; the triumph of painting; the one or two canvases a year. The old myths can be mined the deepest.

  3. While I’m open to the flux and don’t want to condemn what is only just appearing, I am a little more wary and stand closer to Hammad. That this should “break up the bounding conditions of stagnated (ossified) operations” and therefore be desirable doesn’t come automatically for me. Last year I wrote about Sotheby’s (red) auction and the corresponding tendency for collector-driven non-profits to exhibit objects with a high degree of artifice and visual interest and without – if not actual disregard for – the traditional role of a curator. I fear that when art is made for an auction context – when its value is determined by the transparency of the market – it is going to be pitched towards sheer market effect. Murakami’s “My Lonesome Cowboy” is a fine example of a work of art that does well in an auction context, and everyone gets the$15 million dollar joke.

    There are many different markets for art, so I don’t want to participate in what I regard to be false hegemonic dimensions, but we already know that there is an aspect of mass media that picks up eagerly on what lends itself sensationalism, hype, and photogenic mobility. A worry about the auction house is that it may likewise become an unchecked vehicle for the flow of capital, allowing into its gates only what effortlessly increases this flow. Damien Hirst seems to think he’s it, and we’ll see if he is right. But who knows what models for the presentation of work at auction might emerge in the future – there is always going to be a market for something other than a spin art painting and there is reason to be hopeful. At the moment however, Hammad and I are in some agreement that already visible are trends revealing disappointing effects.

  4. How about Damien 90210? As an indication of whatever is good, bad or indifferent in the art market (you choose), his decision to quickly conduct a large swath of primary sales through the auction houses self consciously highlights the following symptoms of our contemporary moment: celebrity power; overproduction and the rule of the assembly line; an oversold milieu; banality; the excessively trashy, melodramatic or gnarly; seriality or sequel-itis. Plus the high school soap opera (greed, pride, envy and the other Deadlies) that defines social and economic relations in our art world.

    Hirst has an intuitive feel for the market, as shown in the $100 million diamond encrusted skull, which was less about piece than price, less a super blingy bit of memento mori than an object lesson in how value can be foregrounded, orchestrated, exaggerated, manipulated. If he is ready to clean his stables right now, perhaps he is just shrewdly assessing the moment and estimating that never again will he be able to unload so much for so much. Or, as Jonathan suggests, is this a necessary rite of divestment, one fell swoop that must precede his next (solitary genius) phase?

  5. Dissertation topic alert: Do auctioned works really offer more spectacular and photogenic “conceptual bling” than galleries? I don’t know the answer, but it would be good to know.

    Hirst’s move–going around galleries–is the ultimate luxury of a branded artist. Only a tiny fraction of artists can consider such a move. If your market is broad and deep– think how many collections “must” have a Hirst?–then you can build your own marketing machine and go wholesale. Functionally speaking, dealers provide an avenue of mobility for artists. At the top, you no longer need mobility. You need volume. Likewise, dealers sit and wait for buyers, often for years. A branded artist has enough buyers to fill a room–why wait?

    Where’s the danger? Given the nature of Hirst’s work, I can scarcely think that it lies in the corrosive effect of conceptual bling–his buyers seem to crave that. Nor is it likely that his move damages the market as a whole. Hirst is to art sales what Michael Phelps is to swimming. He is an exception, not the norm, and his exceptionality will lure more people and money into the system.

    Will dealers suffer form Hirst’s move? Unlikely. His most recent dealer might be chagrined, but the top branded artists already play by different rules (witness the diamond skull). Successful and entrepreneurially inclined artists have long been known to interact directly with their markets even in modern times (Peter Halley is one example). Moreover, the branded artist’s current mega-dealer probably recruited him from a smaller gallery, so going to auction is just one more step on the art-world food chain. Past dealers sitting on Hirst inventory have no reason to complain as long as his market is strong. As for the rest of the gallery system, the overwhelming majority of dealers have no reason to fear that any of their artists might go the Hirst route.

    The threats, I believe, are less obvious. For galleries, Hirst’s move is, above all, a prestige blow. Henceforth dealers are clearly no longer the arbiters of values at the top. One could say that this has long been case in the multimillion-dollar resale market. But the conspicuous circumventing of traditional intermediaries hurts.

    In the end, the most tangible fallout of dissolving the traditional artist-dealer relationship may threaten the artist. These pitfalls are somewhat analogous to the potential dangers inherent in the behavior of monopolies and quasi-monopolies.

    Dealers provide a filtering and feedback function that can help ensure, in the best cases, that artists maintain a high level or quality and push themselves to innovate as well as to discard ideas that may bomb in the critical and commercial marketplace. In the case of Hirst, we’re talking about a large company, by art-world standards, that comfortably dominates a segment of the art market. Like GM or IBM, such a company can grow fat and happy if it becomes convinced that the marketplace will match its output with a seemingly endless demand. The threat for monopolistic companies, in short, is that they stop paying attention to their customers and to their competition. It’s beautiful while it lasts, but before you know it, you’re Chrysler and it’s 1980.

    Hirst’s most famous contribution to art is a shark frozen in movement. Let’s hope it won’t turn out to be a symbol of his conduct as a businessman.

  6. “Where’s the danger? Given the nature of Hirst’s work, I can scarcely think that it lies in the corrosive effect of conceptual bling–his buyers seem to crave that. Nor is it likely that his move damages the market as a whole. Hirst is to art sales what Michael Phelps is to swimming. He is an exception, not the norm, and his exceptionality will lure more people and money into the system.”

    This amounts to saying that what is good for the market is good for art, and comparing Hirst to an olympic swimmer on the basis of excellence in sustaining the flow is a perfect analogy. To hit yet another note, purchased prestige is often empty.

    Steve’s 90210 – isn’t that the zip code for television sitcom mediocrity?

  7. 90210? 666? 999? It’s H-day minus one and counting. Will it be H-Bull or H-Bomb? The price of a Sotheby’s share fell 8 percent on the NYSE last Thursday, so the general market seems neither impressed nor hopeful. But the art market has not yet spoken.

    However, as reported on, Australian critic Robert Hughes already has. Who could stop him? Famously polemical and contrarian during his 50-year tenure in NYC, castigating Schnabel and Salle in the 1980s, Hughes has previously described Hirst’s work as “tacky commodities” devoid of meaning that “function like a commercial brand.” In The Mona Lisa Curse, a documentary film to be televised in England about a week after the auctions, Hughes particularly derides The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, an early foray into taxidermy and formaldehyde. He seems particularly chagrined that the tiger shark inside the tank was caught in Australian waters before being shipped to London, a bit of latter day anti-colonialism. Hirst, for his part, calls Hughes a “Luddite”.

  8. My only comment is that Damien is a better market timer than most financial analysts. He couldn’t have done this sale 2 years ago. And he won’t be able to do it next year. So “bravo”.

  9. Thought I would share a bit of (unattributable) art world chatter, which indicates that a healthy number of lots in the recent Hirst auction were initially consigned to his London galleries, and in fact arrived at Sotheby’s via White Cube and Gagosian London. Meaning these galleries very likely shared some portion of the proceeds for these particular sales. Perhaps we have been a bit naive in suggesting that Hirst is in some way threatening the gallery system or broaching the artist-dealer honor code by conducting primary business directly through an auction house. At a certain level of art money and power, no one is denied a piece of the pie. The back room gamesmanship is merely disguised for public consumption by a compelling and distracting cover story, a diverting circus, in much the same way that last year’s diamond encrusted skull was “bought” by a consortium that included Hirst, his dealers and other interested backers. There will always be such a consortium at the heart of the deal, whether explicitly stated or implicitly hidden. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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