Selling art

different strokes

Selling art

Robert Hughes rued that the entanglement of big money with art had become a curse on how art is made, controlled and experienced, recalls Giridhar Khasnis 

In a darkened room on the top floor of White Cube Gallery, London, 42-year-old, Turner-prize-winning British artist Damien Hirst unveiled a platinum replica of a human skull, encrusted all over with 8601 diamonds on 1 June, 2007. The price tag of the piece, For the Love of God, placed on a black pedestal in a cubic case of cold glass was also announced: £50 million, or close to $100 million! 

The sensational news sent ripples through the art world. “It is no secret that the art market has become drunk with money lately with major auctions, routinely raising record prices for artists old and new,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding in The New York Times.

 (Alas, Poor Art Market: A Multimillion-Dollar Head Case / June 13, 2007). “Never before have contemporary artists, from London to Leipzig, New York to Shanghai, been at the centre of such speculative fever. Mr Hirst is a shining symbol of our times, a man who perhaps more than any artist since Andy Warhol has used marketing to turn his fertile imagination into an extraordinary business. But in fairness, Mr Hirst is just playing the game. It is a game played by collectors and dealers at art fairs throughout the year; it is a game finessed as never before by Sotheby’s and Christie’s; it is a game in which, in the words of Nick Cohen, a rare British journalist to trash Mr Hirst’s publicity coup, ‘the price tag is the art’.”

In one of the key sequences of the documentary The Mona Lisa Curse (2008, colour, 128 minutes), renowned art critic Robert Hughes stands in front of Hirst’s 33-foot, 13-ton bronze sculpture The Virgin Mother. “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?” he wonders. “Just extraordinary... You know, when I look at a thing like this, I realise that so much of art — not all of it, thank god, though a lot of it — has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandisement of the rich and the ignorant. It is a kind of bad but useful business.”

Engrossing documentary

An engrossing TV production by multi-award-winning documentary director Mandy Chang, The Mona Lisa Curse was produced by Oxford Film and Television Channel 4 as part of its Art and Money series and presented by the redoubtable Robert Hughes. It received a Grierson award as also the top honours in the Arts Programming category at the 2009 International Emmy Awards.

A timely polemic by Hughes, The Mona Lisa Curse examined how the production and experiencing of art had radically changed over a period of time. In a deviously controlled cultural landscape, art was being appreciated for its price tag instead of being admired through any critical perspective.

The film’s focus was clearly on the rise of contemporary art; its fast-changing attitudes and practices; and the way money and art had become fiercely interconnected. It recapitulated how the art market revolution that began in the 1960s in New York had taken over the world; how art superstars were made and how the monetary value of art had skyrocketed. “Apart from drugs, art is the biggest unregulated market in the world, with contemporary art sales estimated at around $18 billion a year,” says Hughes. “And that is boosted by regiments of nouveau riche collectors and serviced by a growing army of advisors, dealers and auctioneers.”

Hughes compares Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. “What ties the Mona Lisa to this glittery bobble is their role in a giant shift in the art world, and that shift is all about money,” he explains. “It’s a story that I’ve watched unfold during the last 50 years. I’ve seen with growing disgust the fetishisation of art, the vast inflation of prices and the effect of this on artists and museums. The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all — in the way that it’s experienced. And this curse has affected the entire art world.”

Carping critic

As a longtime art critic of Time magazine and producer of several television productions, besides being the author of important books (including The Shock of the New), Hughes came to be known as an authoritative writer, influential reviewer and hard-hitting commentator. His lacerating writing and  controversial views on contemporary art and artists were admired by many but also criticised by some as being excessively harsh and opinionated. Writing his obituary in The New York Times, Randy Kennedy recalled that Hughes was “as damning about artists who fell short of his expectations as he was ecstatic about those who met them, and his prose seemed to reach only loftier heights when he was angry.”

Hughes appreciated artists like the American painter Robert Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008), while criticising artists like Hirst, Andy Warhol and such others. He seemed to reserve his utmost contempt for auction houses and controversial art collectors like Robert Scull and the wealthy Mugrabi family (which owned a sizeable collection of works by Hirst, Warhol, Jeff Koons and other big names) for commodifying works of art. Hughes also scorned at auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, accusing them of blatantly exploiting the art market.

He also took on museums for adopting “the strategy of mass media; with an emphasis on spectacle, the cult of the celebrity masterpiece, art clocked through the blink of an eye or through the lens of a camera.” He mourned that “at the age of 70, I belong to the last generation that could spend time in a museum without ever once thinking about what the art might cost.”

Hughes’s final words in The Mona Lisa Curse are insightful: “When artists are tightly tied to the market, something is lost. Some think that so much of today’s art mirrors and thus criticises decadence, not so — it’s just decadent, full stop. It has no critical function; it is part of the problem. For me, the cultural aspect of the last 50 years has been the domination of the art market. Far more striking than any individual painting or sculpture. It has changed art’s relationship with the world. And is drowning its sense of purpose. And what resurfaces after this deluge? Art like this (Hirst’s skull). Stripped of everything but its market value. If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there is much point in having it. And that is something we are going to face, more and more as the years go on.”

Post Script: Recently, Andy Warhol’s 1963 painting titled Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) was a major highlight of the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening auction in New York. On 13th November, 2013, the 105 x 164 inch painting depicting the immediate aftermath of a car crash sold for $105,445,000 (Hammer Price with Buyer’s premium), thereby smashing the artist’s previous record by more than $30 million!

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