Damien Hirst, the Contemporary Art Market, and the Critics

Last week, on September 15 & 16, 2008, the same days the U.S. stock markets tanked and the world economy appeared to be on the brink, Damien Hirst did something revolutionary. He and Sotheby’s sold $200m of his “art.”

I put that term in quotes, because critic Robert Hughes weighed in on the “tacky” and “absurd” nature of Hirst’s art. Then he followed up by claiming that all that is wrong with the contemporary art world began when The Mona Lisa was toured in 1963 and people lined up to see the painting.

Hirst hit back in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald dismissing the critic as a “luddite.”

Hirst sold 223 lots in a direct to auction sale that bypassed his longtime dealers (some of whom actually bought work at the auction). The BBC reported on some of the prices and what sold and what didn’t here.

According the The Star before the huge sale last week, Hirst had only sold 95 works at auction in the past 12 months. The average price of those works was $475,000.

“The average on the first day (of auction), on Monday, was $2.6 million. The average on both days – heavily weighted to minor pieces, was $910,000. So, in a mature and declining market, they doubled the average price of the last year by combining the two brand names of Hirst and Sotheby’s. It’s staggering.”

Today, Germaine Greer of The Guardian weighed in on the issue, claiming that Hughes just didn’t get it. The art of Damien Hirst is the auction. The marketing. Hughes is clinging to a notion that artists still actually make their art. One of the artist’s Hughes embraces is Lucien Freud.

Lee Rosenbaum tried to clarify the spin provided by Sotheby’s on the results of the auction here.

And Roberta Smith provided the most lucid and accurate analysis of Hirst and his direct to auction approach in The New York Times.

Face it, art and money are deeply interconnected and Hirst is the CEO of a very successful business, churning out mass produced products like butterfly paintings and dot paintings and dead animals in formaldehyde.

Quoth Roberta: “Mr. Hirst claims, fatuously, that he is “democratizing” art, but he is really just expanding his client base to buyers who don’t know much about art.”

She continues:

Outside of Damien World, the auction’s most interesting evidence is less about the growing, “democratized” art market than about the fragmentation inherent in globalism. The art world can expand only so far before it splinters, and that disintegration has started. Whether they are named China, Moscow, Christie’s or Damien World, the various kingdoms of the art world are multiplying into slightly overlapping, more or less provincial spheres, which may have always been the case.

And Mr. Hirst may simply have morphed into the Thomas Kincaid of contemporary art, running a factory that produces major, minor and starter Hirsts. Eventually he will probably cut the auction houses out of the deal, too.

The most interesting tidbit for me in all of this, is that Damien Hirst is happily working alone in a cottage studio at his mansion, making paintings all on his own.

And laughing all the way to the bank.

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