Pop Goes The Art World
September 8th 2008 was a pleasant Indian summer cloudy day in London. Who could have predicted a nice boy from Bristol would change the art world forever? On this balmy night Damien Hirst used technology, the implications of technology, a lion’s courage and wicked smarts to blow the art world to bits.
Hirst’s most recognizable work is a shark swimming silently and forever in a vat of formaldehyde. “The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living” is the title of this easy to misunderstand masterpiece. This post is not about why Impossibility of Death is a modern masterpiece with surrealist roots and direct lines to Rene Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornel, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois. Those who think Impossibility is dumb don’t know what they don’t know, so let’s leave it at that and concentrate on how Shark Boy attacked the art world on September 8th, 2008.
The global art world is a close cousin to finance. Wall Street looms large. There is usually a direct connection between Wall Street bonuses and art prices. What do you remember of global finance in September 2008? In case you’ve already forgotten it was a black time. Financial markets around the world were in crisis. Unregulated Credit Default Swaps, also known as bank gambling, started to tank. Home prices where on their way to 30% losses in over heated markets creating banks “too big to fail”. Stocks plummeted; lumps of coal for Christmas for all EXCEPT artist Damien Hirst.
Damien Hirst walked in with a smile. His incorrigible youth was giving way to a brilliant financial future. In fact, Hirst’s grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives after this single night. How did this former shoplifter pick the art world’s pockets to the tune of $200,000,000? It was simple.
Hirst knew technology was changing the art world faster than established gallery owners could keep up. Hirst would orchestrate an auction. His “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” show was 100% controlled by Hirst. The show took place at Sotheby’s, but Sotheby’s acted only as an acceptable venue. The show’s genius was Hirst, and his genius reaped most of the two hundred million dollar reward.
Why, you may wonder, in such a tumultuous economic climate was there any reward? Why did the art world choke up $200,000,000? Hirst’s insight about technology, that he could control his marketing future better than any gallery, was coupled with a brilliant understanding of social psychology. Humans, as outlined in numerous books including Mind of the Market by Michael Shermer, hate to lose more than they desire gain. Hirst used this knowledge to turn tables on gallery owners.
Gallery owners holding original Damien Hirsts would have to create and support a market floor or risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars as paintings in their inventory moved up or down with Hirst’s auction prices. Allow prices to plummet and existing holdings lose money. Humans and gallery owners fear loss more than they desire gain.
Hirst took a giant risk. He played Russian roulette with his brand. If gallery owners were too strapped to buy aggressively world headlines would read, “Artist’s Experiment In Personal Manifest Destiny Deemed Failure.” Instead headline read, “Living Contemporary Artist Makes $200,000,000 In A Single Night.” Few media outlets understood what Shark Boy’s attack meant, the art world; an insular world of kings and sharecroppers, was leveled by a brash boy from Bristol in a single night.
Technology helped. Access to the Richy Riches who buy million-dollar art is not downloadable on the web, at least not yet. Hirst understood he didn’t need Richy Riches at his auction. All he needed to have more money than several generation of Hirst will be able to spend was gallery owners. They would understand how to protect their money. Death, taxes and gallery owners know how to protect their money are Aristotelian truths.
It couldn’t have been fun to be forced into helping destroy your own business model. Make no mistake; gallery owners helped Hirst destroy THEMSELVES. Hirst’s genius was in realizing gallery owners had no choice. His brash action set his art free of artificial market controls. Hirst controls his art and brand now. Even the concept of THAT control is less meaningful. Hirst has beach money. I doubt he was struggling before the auction, but no more sharecropping for Hirst. Several generations of Hirsts where freed by their brilliant patriarch’s move.
Gallery owners should understand their total loss. Only one global entity controls information now – GOOGLE. A gallery owner’s ability to whisper contrasting secrets into just the right ears is gone. Google creates the next Pop Art movement. Gallery owners became order takers marginalized by Shark Boy. I don’t lose sleep over a handful of millionaires losing control over how they pay for wine and multiple homes; fair enough is my thinking. I am interested in Hirst and the implications for other contemporary artists.
Hirst’s actions complete Duchamp’s ideas and philosophies. Duchamp’s, “It is art because I say it is,” concept made a cage of sugar cubes and urinals respected museum fare. Maybe Duchamp’s brain was the first Google. Duchamp’s readymades moved power to artists away from critics, and galleries. No more enslavement to rigid doctrinaire academy thinking. Obeying any dogma, Duchamp knew, was anti-art: contemporary dogma being dogma nonetheless.
Duchamp worked enough not to starve. His relaxed, “Let’s play chess,” manner was indication he knew it would take generations before his ideas would be accepted. Marcel lived just long enough to see a new generation of artists blow apart the art world. Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Ruscha and Dine created POP ART because Duchamp created readymades. Marcel Duchamp died in October 1968.
Pop was an artist and then quickly a gallery phenomenon. Sidney Janis, Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp groomed, packaged and sold Pop. Impossible to understand disdain and anger the general public voiced when Pop “hit the scene”. Now Pop is accepted. Then it was part of a radical underground agenda destroying America and the world. No, it was just Duchamp’s next shoe to fall. Pop elevated a handful of gallery owners to superstars and kingmakers. People were too stupid to understand Pop; the line went, so a handful of gallery owners and curators would teach them. Necessary then stupid and superfluous now as Shark Boy proved on an Indian summer night in London September 8th, 2008.
Nest installment of Art is Business Is Art: Sharkboy Meets A Shepard.
Art Is Business Is Art