"Shock Waves Rock Shares....
"but there's one man who just can't stop making money"
( Headline: Evening Standard Tuesday 16th Sept 2008)
The Physical Impossibility of Hirst in the Minds of the Living
The Sotheby's 'sale of the century', London 15/16th September 2008 as the centre of glancing reflections on the life and times of Damien Hirst
Hirst comes under the hammer (but a kick up the arse would be better)
Art as the New currency?
The message from the sale was very timely and opportune, if only briefly so. Now that the public purse is all but empty why not 'butterflies' and 'spin paintings' as financial guarantors of last resort? Netting a fortune takes on an entirely new meaning as if E.O. Wilson's notion of "natural capital" has finally come of age, finance capitalism now blood and flesh. So what next? An incredulous rescue package passed in Congress of a trillion wings torn off blue morhpo butterflies? Or a universal shout, led by sacked banking employees that installation/concept art is finance capital's new clothes, the very people who only a week ago were among the most susceptible to its bankrupt aura of creativity that in retr
The mega success of Hirst's Sotheby's sale, easily breaking all previous records for a 'living artist' (i.e. living corpse), unfolded against the backdrop of the most acute international financial crises the world has ever known, one whose ramifications are bound to be cataclysmic for everything and everybody, excepting art. This at least is the belief, or rather faith that caused the usually philistine Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow to let rip and say something interesting for a change. Interviewing a Sotheby's sales rep he asked what are we to make of all this, that butterflies are a safer bet than banks? The Sotheby's sale had bucked the trend of on-going financial catastrophe and for that reason must be regarded as the most important art sale ideologically there has ever been, even if it its salutary effect proved to be of short duration. For it briefly calmed nerves on the cusp of collapse and became the still centre of the storm, the one sound structure left in an otherwise tottering financial landscape.
The dream of a universal capitalism, embodied in the selling of sub prime mortgages to the desperately poor which sought to anchor capitalism almost exclusively in that most basic need of all, a roof over ones head, had became the moment of sheerest hubris for latter day, free market capitalism. The shameless selling of the myth there need be no ceiling to the aspirations of the poor under a system that was responsible for their poverty in the first place had, thanks to the success of the Sotheby's sale been decoupled, at least in the all important realm of appearances, from the only functioning market left, the art market. Universal home ownership, the idea of the home as limitless collateral, had amidst much blood and gore, surrendered the field, temporarily conquered by the 'democratisation' of concept art. With its last ditch promise of riches for everyman, it is finance capitalism's substitute for 'the poetry made by all'. From the German Dadaist "Every man his own football" travelled through time to "Everyman his own capitalist".
Requiring no special skill, concept art had triumphed where Northern Rock, Bear Sterns, Lehman Bros AIG, HBOS etc (and how many more etceteras are to come?) have failed and fictive values were reborn in the 'aesthetic' region that was once their prime home but is now just a creative nothingness, no matter how hard well heeled critics try to persuade us we are witnessing a veritable renaissance, hype that is ridiculous and unhistorical though essential to the credence, and indeed, survival, of the 'value added' industries of Europe and America.
In fact weeks before the sales spectacular was staged, it had been cleverly advertised as a blow for freedom, an attempt to democratise the art market subverting dealers, galleries, commission sales, the cognoscenti it is necessary to network if one is ever to get to the top – or rather bottom, if one has by now any self-esteem left. Hirst, we are told, is sensitive to criticism and maybe he was out to refute a book that was written by an economist, Don Thompson, on the contemporary concept art market called "The $12 million Stuffed Shark". Here Thompson lays bare what one has to do if one is to succeed in the art business, a task requiring almost as much savoir-faire in knowing whom to flatter, and subservience to hierarchy, as in the court of Louis 14th, even though selling a product that historically has its origins in, and is invariably linked if one goes that far back, to past revolutionary upheavals. Whatever his private thoughts on the shallowness of court life, Watteau could never have cited revolutionary antecedents – and herein lies the paradox.
Hirst likes to think of himself as an enfant terrible, an opinion continually reinforced by a press and a media as ignorant of real history as he is. Rather than break the mould, his destiny requires he reshuffles the pack from time to time and so he now speaks of reinventing himself, perhaps blandly sensing a period is drawing to a close and that there is such a plethora of concepts as to devalue the market promising something else instead, a situation that has echoes of Marx's prediction there would come a point when capitalism could no longer valorize itself. It would be nice to speak of transcendence here but unfortunately one cannot, though it has to be said the valueless two-dollar bill struck to the head offices of Lehman Bros is more eloquent of something stirring deep within and far more likely to resonate in a meaningful way than anything Hirst has done. And film crew members could easily have come up with the suggestion a report on the bust Bradford & Bingley end with memorable footage of an upturned bowler hat on the pavement into which copper coins were being tossed. In fact the number of men and women queuing up to be photographed at the rear end of Wall Street's bronze bull is of far greater consequence than the record price paid for Hirst's "Golden Calf ", and which escaped the attention of media ironists. Nor did anyone seek to compare the clips of circling sharks on news bulletins, personifying the shorting of stock by hedge finds with the Tiger Shark sold by Hirst for an auction busting price. Moral: a banker can be a shark but not an artist.
However ever since the Saatchi brothers arrived on the scene, (Charles Saatchi commissioned Hirst's formaldehyde shark) art has been the interactive gloss energising capital's fictive gambling spree, the home becoming increasingly a time/space concept, rather than habitable, bricks and mortar interior. Women in fact became the chief victim of this home centred revolution and one qualitatively different from the initial conservative bias of a free market version of kinder, kirche und kuchen originally proclaimed by Mrs Thatcher. Once the job of de-industrialisation was complete, the home, even more so than in America, became the motor of the economy, with women occupying a previously unimaginable, key role in its reproductive success - or horror. At the same moment women were becoming less biological, less mumsy, and of more 'direct' economic consequence to the economy, housing was becoming more of a biological rather than economic fact, and, like the free market, part of the inviolable, natural order of things. The survival of the aesthetic fittest, central to a free market, makeover constructivism, granted a privileged position to women as aesthetic drivers of economic growth rather more so than it did to men. Embraced with the all the fervour of the newbie, the involution of the aesthetic, rather than total revolution, became the reactionary answer – and one which the market eagerly seized on - to the profound alienation of women.
Go back ten years to when the B and B was still a mutual and Britain's second biggest building society and we could expect to see the same bowler-hatted pair of city gents Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley advertising its wares. After de-mutalisation in 2000 when the building society became a bank, giving it more freedom to borrow on the money markets, the M and C Saatchi advertising firm was called in who promptly made its image less 'sexist', though in reality duping women more than ever. The image of staid British banking, Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley, disappeared to be replaced by a young woman grinning knowingly at potential customers and whispering "Aren't hopes and dreams fragile? But they could happen with the B 'n' B". Offering mortgages to higher risk categories, the housing market became less family orientated and more about space and design and children, if there were any, an adjunct to design, the latter, in turn, becoming 'clients' of their parents and free to butt out once the commercial deal of parenthood was foreclosed on. All told this development gave a money orientated, psychological depth and persona to the housing market, different to the first wave of 'pragmatic' home ownership that began in the 1970s. 'Feeling at home' became more like being in a gallery, living within an installation or therapist's surgery. Promising a never ending high of rising prices, the housing market of the last decade played on opening the doors of perception. B and Bs final hubristic catchphrase, appearing in the windows of all its high street outlets, reads Fixed, Done, Sorted. Flanked by a life sized cut-out of woman dressed in a smart green two-piece but still wearing a bowler hat, the time-honoured symbol of the B and Bs pedigree, it had a definite druggie ring to it.
Around 49% of the B and Bs mortgage loans were in the buy to let market. It has been apparent for some time, certainly well before the present financial catastrophe, that this market was collapsing rapidly and that the rents from properties were not meeting the mortgage repayments. The media coverage of it, particularly on TV, has tended to concentrate on the plight of women taken in by the con. One woman was facing complete financial ruin, having purchased 7 new build flats in Manchester's city centre, the promise of millions turning to ashes as she contemplated moving into a bed-sit. Having taken out a second mortgage on her spacious home it was only a matter of time before it was repossessed. Divorced and with young children to bring up, her detached manner was uncanny, like she was drugged out of her mind and able only to go through the motions. However she still could point to a strip of unfinished plastering measuring two inches by three foot at the max in a stair well, an omission she had pointed out to the builder when she had last visited the flat, then nearing completion. Excluding everything that really mattered, it was as if her whole life was still hinged on the most trivial of design features.
More than anything else it is housing as an enduring, ever appreciating art/capital asset that has caused women to lose their social sense, rather more, it has to be said, than men for whom the home is less of an exhibit. Unreal housing aspirations then feed through into the reality of wrecked relationships, once the more human part of the décor, the man, fails to live up to impossible designer expectations and is then blown out in the name of the unattainable. The dream home then increasingly turns into a lonely, solipsistic nightmare that no one dares enter. The present crisis is not just a seismic crisis for finance capital and its corollary, a bust housing market. It will also bring much needed, deflationary pressures to bear on the gullible expectations of new breed of power women, patsies for everything this aberrant, hopelessly lopsided, form of capitalism has to offer and that is now riven with multiple catastrophes.
The above paragraph might appear as yet another unfocussed ambling off. But let us not forget one of the leading ideologists of contemporary feminism, Germaine Greer, was a late, very late comer to Hirst's cause. When we'd all had a bellyful of it, Greer was rhapsodising the inside of cows. This conversion on the road to Sotheby's, signalled Greer's awakening to concept art which she continues to make such a naïve hash of, understanding nothing of the true import of 'the revolution of modern art'. But neither did any of her erstwhile sisters like Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Seagel, not to mention the Guardian journalist, Madeleine Bunting, who professes to see in the cognitive and entertainment values of installation/concept art, a way to politically reengage the young just when youth (let us, at least, hope) may be about to discover those storms natural to it, which, according to Lautreamont, "precede brilliant days". And should 90 year old youth ever recover its revolutionary youth, Bunting will be amongst the first to condemn it out of hand.
The ever more cretinous Greer's worst performance to date has to be that following 'The Mona Lisa Curse', a TV documentary put together by the Australian art critic Robert Hughes who singled out Hirst as the target for his opprobrium, the 'artist' who most epitomised Andy Warhol's dictum 'good business is the best art'. On the day following the screening Greer wrote an article in the G2 section of the Guardian (28/8/08) in which she condemned Hughes as a stuckist for failing to realize Hirst's undeniable "genius is in getting people to buy" his stuff – "because the art form of the 21st century is marketing". Aside from the fact Hughes is not a stuckist, and rather belongs to a defunct tradition of the new i.e. an avant-garde that has long lost any relevance as regards making "us think and see more clearly", what unites Greer and Hughes is infinitely stronger than what divides them. For both are wilfully ignorant of the truly subversive tendencies (e.g. latter-day surrealism, lettrism, the situationists) unleashed by the rebellion of modern art, which sought the transcendence and realization of art through revolutionary upheaval and genuine mass creativity. And should either of them ever dig up this hidden history, both will be sure to hate it, Hughes in particular opting immediately for the ultra capitalisation of art, preferring a billion Hirsts, an ocean of pickled sharks, and a universe of hedgies any day to the prospect of an anti-capitalist revolution. More open to playing catch-up, Greer, more than likely, will be left floundering, her role as a purveyor of idiocies in a quality press fit only for idiots at an end. (Greer's article provoked a flurry of letters to the Guardian-but more on that later)
We were conscious of how Hirst, when he redesigned a boat he purchased in Chelsea boat yard, handed, in a self conscious way, much of the designing over to his wife, formerly the partner of Jay Jopling, son of an ex Tory minister and owner of the White Cube gallery, (a free market tabula rasa of everything implied by Malevich's white cube, and one that has its counterpart in the forgetting of what unbridled free markets lead to), and who, in the early days, in addition to letting Hirst get his leg over his girl friend, gave a leg up to Hirst, exhibiting his work in his gallery. (Of all the boats in the harbour, Hirst's is the least inventive, the least quirky, an altogether very unshippy affair, almost like it was an operating theatre. Unfortunately during the years we worked in the harbour, we never once ran into Hirst. Thus he was spared a few, ripe comments).
Never quite forgiven either by Saatchi or Jopling, for shorting the gallery circuit, Hirst eventually found a mentor in Frank Dunphy, an accountant from Dublin who sorted out his tax worries and who had also managed the affairs of Peaches Page, the Uk's first touring naked dancer and Julie Mendez and her Performing Python. Dunphy promised to make Hirst money rather than just save him money and Hirst eagerly took up the offer, Dunphy laying the ground for Hirst's dominance of the contemporary art market - though by now Hirst had already made the right moves and was now enough of a celebrity to get clean away with it. It was Dunphy who suggested Hirst go for a straight to auction sale at Sotheby's, bypassing the traditional route of an art gallery and hefty dealer's commission. Having successfully renegotiated Hirst's gallery contracts, ensuring the share of the proceeds from any sale increased from the standard of 50% to between 80% and 90%, Dunphy must have felt assured of further success in his campaign to further the rights of artists in preference to those of man.
Hirst is hardly a populist in a political sense but it surely is significant that he prefers to do business with an accountant from a working class background to a Tory minister's son or an ex Courtauld graduate. It is the aristocracy of money he feels most comfortable with, not the traditional aristocracy of culture. And so on the night of the auction Hirst was to be found playing snooker with the former world champion Ronnie O' Sullivan. Had he still been a drinker he might have wound up with a more temperate Gazza. Hirst choice of friends from outside the art market is symptomatic of the more democratic side of installation/concept art in so far as it requires no special skills other than the ability to make money, the money made by all rather than poetry made by all, which has always been understood as a subversive, practical force aimed point blank at the heart of the commodity economy, ever since the surrealists correctly popularised it. It is one of those enduring slogans that won't go away and inevitably entails the abolition of the role of artist. Now this is something Hirst utterly refuses to contemplate because he knows, as an arch commodity fetishist, art is now interchangeable with money, and for him to accumulate yet more money it is absolutely essential that he never drops the pretence that art comes first, for that will lose him the Midas touch. It is not mere tongue in cheek sales pitch when he says ---- for he genuinely believes his self serving deceit. When push comes to shove he will stop at nothing to preserve the role of artist, every bit as much as his foe Hughes. Hirst is far more at ease with a tennis star like Navratilova, now turned installation artist, or John McEnroe, now a New York gallery owner, or Roman Abramovich, now the installation Tzar of the Russian art scene as well as boss of Chelsea FC, than with a 'proper' painter , or rather 'proper' dauber like Sidney Nolan, an artist much admired by Hughes. However what unites then is stronger than what divides them and it is unlikely one will ever hear either of them quote with approval Lautrteamont's ringing phrase. For that means risking all.
Though far from the poetry made by all, the sale was in principle open to all. This, at least, was the democratic façade, though in reality it was a highly select gathering and in that sense no different from the sniffy in-crowd Hirst wanted to short, thus in theory giving everyone the right to purchase his work. In fact the viewing screens in other rooms were only there for the show and only the favoured few were given access to telephones, a feature of art sales the TV viewing public have long been familiar with when art first started to be ramped spectacularly during the 80s, reaching its apogee when a painting of sunflowers by Van Gogh's was sold for a staggering £50 million to a private bidder. It later turned out to be a Japanese bank and marked the aesthetic nemesis of Japan's banking sector as property prices crashed and chronic deflation set in, despite massive public work projects of New Deal proportions that tested the limits of the absurd, like building inane airports in the sea in a country oversupplied with airports. Then as now the salerooms broke into applause, when records were broken. I recall, at the time, someone on a building site saying he wished the principle could be extended to building operatives and that the more money we asked for, the more we would be applauded by our employers!
The success of Hirst's sale resulted in a wave of mental securitisation that compensated for the financial earthquake rocking the money markets. On the day after the sale Janet Street Porter headed her page in the 'Independent' 'Forget the doom and gloom - this is the golden age for art in Britain' citing the forthcoming Frieze Art Fair and the fact that Saatchi would shortly be opening a whopper of a gallery in Chelsea. Though hardly an erstwhile radical gone bad, Porter was savvy enough to oppose the Thatcher/Reagan 'revolution' at its inception. Ironically, at the moment of its savage dénouement, she is unable to thrill to it, totally oblivious to the number of 'people' (rather than just the poor) that do and who stand to lose at least some of their cash because of it. Instead she looks to art as alleviation and consolation, disregarding the fact that since Hegel's lectures of the late 1820s, art has never recovered from the slow onslaught these devastating lectures unleashed and whose premise was that art contained a promise that will only be realised through revolution – in Hegel's system the consummation, and partial limitation, of dialectical theory and practise.
In 1970s Porter had been on friendly terms with Howard Frazer, - and for want of a better and ugly term - an English situationist undoubtedly one of the sharpest people in Britain at that time, and who had more than a passing acquaintance with Hegel. I recall once back in the mid 1970s how he had remarked on a book, an exposition of Hegel's thought by Findlay, left lying around in my flat, saying that of all English interpreters of Hegel's thought, the most apposite was by far Findlay's. Yet none of this vibe has even remotely rubbed off on Porter. Instead we learn that she had been an enthusiastic follower of Ed Keinholz since the 1970s - roughly the moment when reaction was beginning to find its feet and books on Friedmanite economics were being opened world wide. (The sound we hear today is not just that of an almighty Crash but of the slamming shut of Friedman's books). But why, in particular, Ed Keinholz? Because an installation of his, 'inspired' by the Amsterdam red light district is being used in the formerly staid National Gallery to advertise a show of 17th century Dutch masters and Porter just like Greer is all for the increased spread of concept/installation art. Why? Because it is popular, entertains and draws in the masses, those absent masses that could easily become an irresistible force once back out on the streets, where they can really make their presence felt and say and do things that really grip the imagination. (The recent brilliant "starving billionaire" placard carried by a Zimbabwean victim of hyperinflation, punches in a way Bansky never can - nor was there a 'value added' con-artist in adjacent S. Africa who could 'privilege' him with an exhibition as Mark Wallinger did the anti Iraq war protester Hoare, whose slogans were nowhere near as arresting, and whose illegal vigil in Parliament Sq. was soured by not telling Wallinger to fuck off in the same breath as he did the government). And this is the unsaid of Porter's article. She wants the masses in museums and galleries, like the two million that lay on the floor of Tate Modern in 2003, 'seduced' by Olafur Eliasson's sun. Immobilised by the society of entertainment, they remain a captive audience flitting from one venue to the next, the play of the games arcade dragging science museums and lecture halls in its wake, a play that can never hope to replace the drama of real science experienced outside the stuffiness of academia, and which requires the building of a new society as its first prerequisite rather than a new games philosophy of science joie de vivre.
Examples are a constant source of astonishment, the reality being far in advance of hesitant notions proposed here, like the 'installation economy'. The Science Museum in 2007, for example appointed its first dancer in residence as part of the summer season, the avant-garde choreographer Athina Valha been given free rein to plunder collections to come up with work. In 2006 the London School of Economics commissioned an electronic artist, Mileece to develop a "generative plant biofeedback system". Having discovered a way to make sounds out of the electromagnetic impulses of plants, she went on to create "plant generated music". These pretentious 'songs in the key of life' can only ruin the wonder and delight such interesting material engender. Examples multiply exponentially: in 2002 Mira Calix, who is signed to Warp Records, was commissioned by the Geneva Museum of Natural History to compose a piece of music from the sounds of 150 different species of insects, the result, Nunu, performed live with the London Sinfonietta in London's Royal Festival Hall. The UK Cape Farewell Project is an attempt to bring artist and scientists together to raise consciousness regarding climate change. Though sharply critical of the "Live Earth" gig in the summer of 2007, the project takes the line it is not the format that is wrong but the content. And so artists like Rachel Whiteread and "high profile" musicians such as Jarvis Cocker and the Led Zepplin bassist, John Paul Jones, are whisked off to the Arctic in the company of scientists from, for example, the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Once there they are given an education, in the high hope the "anger, fear, and aggression needed to galvanize change" will stir future audiences to take action, when the whole of the contemporary art scene is an opiate stopping the masses from taking matters into their own hands. Unfortunately scientists are generally completely ignorant of a critique of avant-garde art and see it as a way of engaging the public with their work, blind to the fact it is part of the problem not the solution.
This jollying-up of science has its origins in the events of the late sixties and is a feeble consequence of the failure of the potentially far more radical critiques of science that unfortunately never got off the ground and then went largely unnoticed. It was also dependent upon the development of virtual reality, interactive computer software for it to achieve its full effect. "The Deep" by Sir Terry Farrell in Hull is a case in point. To enter "The Deep" is to be transported back in spirit to the mid sixties in Newcastle when Farrell was still an architectural student there and had shown a considerable interest in the kind of proto-installations of fishes in plastic cylindrical cake holders rather than conventional fish tanks, then on view as part of the worst aspect of the Icteric experiment which all of us rapidly sloughed off. Then we would have jumped at the opportunity to design a Deep and enlarge our marine, tea cake, stands to the size of the giant spherical shark aquarium in "The Deep". Largely dismissed as an infantile disorder, unbecoming even to someone suffering from down's syndrome, there was not the remotest chance of this ever happening then, a factor that pushed us into the easy acceptance of a revolutionary critique that posited a totality as never before, a step Farrell refused to take and hence 40 years later and a knighthood.......The Deep!
We were even approached by puzzled, though not dismissive, biology students asking questions about our interest in nature as art, though we were not then aware Kant, 180 years previously, had postulated something broadly similar. In a country so wretchedly ignorant of revolutionary traditions and views how could we have known? So all alone and unaided it was left to us to find out treading a very different and difficult path. In our two webs we have occasionally shown examples from the Icteric experiment. This is not to promo and praise these essentially pathetic products – for by themselves they are completely without merit – but in an age where all subversive thought has been almost completely destroyed it carefully helps explain – even over explains - in a stepping stone way, the process whereby this kind of art activism can spill over finally into profound revolutionary critique providing you are prepared to unswervingly walk the last – and most difficult mile - one that will really test your mettle taking out all career prospects you may have entertained. On the simplest of levels are you prepared to be a nobody: a simple Jane & Joe Bloggs in material reality - especially if there's no money in the family background - though with galvanizing ideas that literally set you apart? And that's a difficulty you'll just have to deal with as best you can. It is the process and not the product that is the essential game here.
Kant's nature was also a cognitive as well as aesthetic fact and so it was with us and inevitably we asked questions of nature, not knowing where science ended and art began, a confusion Kant would not have tolerated but whose strict boundaries as subsumed by the idea were to be questioned by Hegel. It may come as a surprise to the rapidly escalating number of show biz, museum curators but the contemporary idea of science as also, in some measure, 'art' as "free play" goes back to Kant who, in his Critique of Judgment, sought to explain why a well conducted scientific analysis awakens is us a feeling of pleasure he considered to involve not just theoretical but also aesthetic judgement. However Kant's notion of the aesthetic was essentially that of the passive bystander, though possessing ethical components that had a practical consequence. It was left to others, initially in response to the French Revolution, to energise the conception, pleasure in play, if pushed far enough, subversive of the existing division of labour, a conception developed further in the late sixties than at any other time in revolutionary history. It was then more than just a "conception" but it has since become that, and so the interactive displays in The Deep or the S. Kensington Science Museum, and increasingly most other museums one cares to mention, are not much more than zippy carbon copies of Kant's initial manifold of different faculties existing in the mind, the profoundly revolutionary afterthoughts, in a roundabout way, it eventually gave rise to – Dada, aspects of surrealism, the situationists - having been suppressed long ago and become---food for The Deep's fishes rather than thought!
This pseudo participatory, push button, grand auto-theft of authentic life is neither learning nor play because it leaves the division of labour and capitalism untouched and is augmented by a theatricalisation of science on TV programs. It is important to mention this, with the key proviso it has more to do with performance art than traditional drama. A TV channel recently catchily advertised a science series as "pure science, sheer drama", the theatrical reconstructions conveying the idea scientists were actors in their own stage shows, their experiments, drama of the highest order, the lab substituting for the stage. Scientists become presenters of their own dramatic material as in the series "Earth: Power of the Planet" screened on TV last year. Wittily dubbed "the Indiana Jones of geology", the shows compere was Dr Ian Stewart, a geologist from Southampton University. He abseiled into the mouth of an active volcano, scuba dived into a tectonic seam in Iceland, white water rafted down a gorge in New Zealand, and shouted out a lesson in geology dangling from a rope halfway up a frozen glacier, the Kantian sublime turned ridiculous by a production aesthetic intent, ultimately, on stifling the power of reason, the very antithesis of the recognition of the supremacy of reason the sublime also gave rise to in Kant's schema. Awesome geological features were an ideal illustration of Kant's theses, pleasing us "immediately by reason of its opposition to the interest of sense". Though we are not today comfortable with the transcendental feelings it allegedly gives rise to, these feelings, as Kant was the first to vaguely intuit, also ineluctably leads to the transcendence of literature, as words fail us before the sublime. In the series Stewart was barely able to utter a sentence without the words "extraordinary", "wonderful", "magnificent" coming around again and again, unawares as to what the revolutionary significance of 'running out of words' would eventually come to mean.
In 2008, Stewart presented a series on climate change, nothing having changed as regards pranks and production bombast in this soothing travelogue of apocalypse: approaching a channel of melt water in a speeding snow ski on the artic ice cap, he cast himself as Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape". The subliminal message could not be clearer: The Show must go on until The Final Curtain is drawn down on The Last Man Standing.
Stewart's debut as a performance scientist was not only a tribute to his acting ability but his athleticism as well. In fact this combination perfectly fitted London's 2012 Olympics amended ambition to be not only "green"(rather than carbon neutral –a claim it could not possibly sustain given the number of airborne visitors it will attract) but also a Cultural Olympiad. Modern day Olympics are never just about sporting events and trail an appalling history of urban clearances behind them, the Athenian poor still paying for theirs. The Barcelona Olympics changed the physiognomy of a city that had largely continued unaltered since it was the capital of anarchy in 1936-7, making it appear as though that was the object of the exercise. And though London's East End has had its fair share of clearances, turning many a less well of Londoner against the games, there is much more at stake in the 2012 games than mere urban renewal, coming as they do after the "best ever" Olympics in Beijing. For the London Olympics is essentially a statement about the shift of power to China, the former workshop of the world intent on trumping the usurper and demonstrating the superiority, in every respect bar none, of a modern capitalism that replaces the assembly line by the design studio, the machine by concept, stores by on-line shopping, encounter on the high street by boutique autism, the typical home by domestic anomaly, relationships by counselling, the negative by cognitive behaviour therapy, the worker by the artist. That at any rate was the idea before the credit crises began – but only began - to shatter illusions on this score. In a world in which a week is a long time, four years is an eternity. Provided the Olympics are not pulled, they are more than likely to reflect the bizarre nature of the times and in that sense will be the most rudderless, improvised hotchpotch of a Crises Olympics there have ever been, and for that reason the most interesting. It has been flagged as "everyone's Olympics" a title that suggests installation art etc is the now the patrimony of the people. If Olympic committees are to honour their pledge, by the same token so will be its transcendence through actual intervention. Let's hope 2012 will live up to its recommended title of the "Putty Medals Olympics".
Well before the credit crises really hit home there were fears the extension to Tate Modern would not be finished on time for 2012. A Guardian article of July19th 2009 mentioned how James Purnell former secretary of state for culture, media and sport who announced the government grant of £70 m last year, spoke then of the unique opportunity it would provide to showcase Britain during the Olympics. The extension by Herzon and de Meuron (also designers of Beijing's bird's nest stadium) was estimated to cost £225 m but fund raising was getting difficult and there was talk of going to the Russian super rich. Formerly conceived as a vast stack of glass boxes, a concept that was recycled for Le Projet Triangle in Paris, the architects are now proposing a pyramidal structure of bricks. Sir Nick Serota, the director of Tate Modern, thought the more traditional building material would help the museum remain visually distinct from the glass office buildings springing up around it – a foretaste possibly of Sir Rotter's changing attitudes and his distancing himself from the 20008 Turner Prize exhibition which the Independent of Oct 7th described as "the most dismal Turner Prize within living memory"- as though the whole caboodle hasn't been a nonsense from start to finish. This conservative retrenchment may be a sign of things to come and in all likelihood there will be at least a temporary return to 'core' artistic values, stuckists' possibly welcoming the credit crises, believing it will usher in a return to traditional artistic norms.
There is a far darker side to this reactionary reinstating of core values than conventional concepts of artistic genius and veneration for "the fine arts". Reverence for a hierarchy of talent and artistic order is even more spurious than the "everyman" concept art stuckists wish to overthrow: in the name of the one and only truth deified by history, it leads everywhere to its ruinous falsification. In Italy it is resulting in the worship of the fascist past. Merely days after the conclusion of Hirst's Sotheby's sale, a convention of urban planners and architects gathered in Rome to honour the architecture of the Mussolini era and the robotic, Greco-Roman marble statutes ringing the Stadio dei Marmi.What we don't want is to be compelled, in the name of progress, to choose between stuckism and concept art, for both are pseudo alternatives leading to ultimate destruction in the long run.
There has over the past few weeks been a conceptual merging of sport and art (spart) in the projected London Olympics of 2012.This is in no small part due to the serendipitous impact of Martin Creed's "running man" installation in that bastion of traditionalism, Tate Britain, above all because of the run away publicity it received. Creed's exhibit, "Work 850", has runners from sports clubs hurtle through the gallery every 30 seconds. It would be nice if some of the spectators thought of putting their foot out but interactivity, as is invariably the case when it comes to public art, was strictly limited, (and then only for the backward and those refusing to grow up), the gallery stipulating that "for reasons of safety we ask the public not to run or obstruct the runners". There has not been one word of intelligent critique raised against it, although the Sun's headline "Oi, yer paint's running" was at least funny. In fact yer average Jack Spratt of a journalist tripped over the laces of their Nike trainers looking for a meaning almost beyond the expressible, a right normally the preserve of credulous art critics out to make a buck, and priceless nutters who aren't. The sheer scale of the silliness appearing in print and on TV is the real midwife of concept art, lacking which it would be starved of the oxygen of publicity and so die. This conviction of having brought into being a depth of meaning where there is none, is a real bonus to capital and can only add to the arsenal of ruling class ideology, relieving of its need to make at least some sense. It certainly took in the former sprinter, Seb Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee, who offered to turn himself into a work of art by running through Tate Britain on the occasion of the launch of the Cultural Olympiad, "London's 2012 effort to infiltrate art into the games".
Coincidentally below the article by Porter cited above, there appeared one by Peter Mandelson the EU Trade Commissioner. Formerly a member of labour's North East mafia and a key advisor to Blair during his early years as PM, this demi-mondaine had been forced out of office when it came out he had taken out a bent loan on his (where else?) Notting Hill house. Pretty much banging the same drum as Porter, the article is entitled 'Creativity is what sets London apart from the rest'. It is a plea for the creative industries, those that, in order to survive, must appeal to a mass market in a way Hirst does not, despite the almost assembly line production of his blue morpho collages and spin paintings which can only retain their value as long as they remain neo-assembly line products i.e. small production runs, even end of the line stock, such as the blue morpho collages and spin paintings have now become, possibly at Dunphy's prompting. There are bound to be layoffs amongst Hirst's 190 employees-----.
Nevertheless Mandelson's notion of a 'trade in ideas' is the dull economic equivalent of concept art, its humdrum, common-a-garden kernel without which concept art would not occupy centre stage. Design functions in the space/time of everyday life in a way the art of the museums cannot: to stretch a word, it is worn. And Mandelson has no doubt that London is the capital of the value added, 'transformative industries' that absorb 'intermediate products' (code for textiles from the sweat shops of Bangladesh for example) and 'a magnet for creative talent from around the world and a global hub for creative industries', a concept that also implies London is the capital of culture, in particular a lived culture that is experienced directly, one evolving in space and time, though one that is the very antithesis of the significance Hegel gave to the Greek festival when, as it were, the arts were transcended and the statue came to life. However 'ideal' the festival is, its duration, of necessity, is limited: today's London however goes one better, and, as the centre of global capitalism, has become the converse – a sleepless life lived–on-a-razor-edged experience in which everything comes together and is the summation of history.
Though Mandelson is in theory, rabidly opposed to protectionism when it suits, he must wish he could halt the flow in concept art which is sweeping every country rich and poor, for it is the froth on which designer industries, and increasingly Europe's bread and butter, depend. However designer industries also depend on cheap bread and butter, otherwise there will be less spare cash to spend on value added products which, by definition, are expensive and, to some degree, bend the law of value, the consumer paying for the label or logo, the closer the value of a commodity approximates to the "inestimable value" placed on art, a value increasingly expressed in sums of money beyond everyday reckoning.
Mandelson, in his article, refers to 'manufacturing industry', a concept as much dreaded by concept artists and the PR industry they have helped spawn, as their counterparts in the top heavy financial sector in this country. Of all the big name conceptual artists, Gormley is the closest to industry because of the nature of the work he does. And yet nowhere does he say anything even mildly interesting about the process of manufacture, a process that still requires an industrial workforce. For that may compel him to confront the question of the endemic class conflict the industrial sector has given rise to in this country, rather more so than in most other countries. If he comments at all it is on the end product of industry, like when he was vexed enough to protest against the destruction of Sheffield's twin cooling towers, remarking how, when viewed half way up, and at such a perilously close range from the Tinsley viaduct on the MI motorway, gave us a unique perspective on them and worth preserving for that reason alone. This is his most interesting comment to date and worth more than all of his junk sculpture put together. It recalls Banksy's felt opposition to the demolition of countless small workshops in the East End in order to make way for the 2012 Olympics and expressed with a passion worth far more, in real terms, than any of his trade mark, value added graffiti. For concept artists are born gentrifiers, their current, self-styled, renaissance studios supplanting the disappeared factories as generators of wealth – at least according to the ideologists of the 'new economics'. It is to be hoped Gormley never sets foot in Grimsby, for the treasure chest of wrecked docks, rotting wharves, weeds, half sunken boats and incongruous Venetian lighthouse would enchant him. However there is precious little chance of that for he only goes where the money is, and Grimsby is not likely to be gentrified any time soon, if at all. And so its promise of a new, ruined, architecture, of reinvented harbours liberated from their former utilitarian purpose and artists, and the one-of-its-kind nature, that does seem to be its natural accompaniment (the lesser black backed gulls massed on the ridge beams of collapsing roofs look inland, instead of out to sea) will long remain a paradise of anticipation opening out onto a better future.
That concept artists increasingly employ people has been of little note in Britain up to now. And we are not talking about a PA in a front office but an actual work force. Given the scale of the output of Hirst or Gormley it could not be otherwise. And yet we know nothing either of, or more importantly, hear nothing from this workforce. Are these retainers too intimidated to speak out, fed up with low pay and being pushed about by half-assed geniuses? Or only too glad to be working for a master of the universe and would even be willing to do so on an unpaid, voluntary basis? We have heard rumours that Gormley behaves in a very highhanded way with his workforce and makes them, given half an opportunity, feel very small indeed. Does he, by any chance, in his bleak house studios qualify for the title of the Gradgrind of concept art? And does Tracy Emin employ an amanuensis to write her weakly column in the Independent, merely throwing her (or him) the leftovers from her £120,000 a year salary she gets from the newspaper? Just to ask these questions poses a very real problem: why does none of this ever come out in this country? Is it because the notion of the individual genius, unsullied by trade, is just too strong a reflex here. However as an idea it has been more to the fore in Europe over the past two centuries than ever it was here, the country that gave birth to the arts and craft movement, and which though opposed to mass manufacture, tended to vaguely nurture a idiosyncratic critique of political economy ? Or are concept artists now celebrities and therefore just are, transcendent beings who breathe creativity and vacancy and have no need of anything more material?
Artistic idolatry in Europe particularly in France and Germany however also ineluctably gave rise to its opposite, an event that never happened here. Wagner is very much a case in point. Following the events of 1848, he turned his back on music and became a pamphleteer, before returning to the stage as the penultimate musician and rabble-rouser. He can be seen as the consummation of one strand of German philosophical idealism, the total work of art, as opposed to the total remaking of the world also posited by the same practical idealism. His influence was colossal, not least on the proto anti-poet Mallarme, who, in the last analysis, spun him into a remote territory as far from the overpowering drapes of the Beyreuth Opera House as its possible to be, the arena of everyday life. Thus Wagner was eventually returned to the insurrectionary streets of his youth, where everything was still to play for, and when he could still be found in the company of Bakunin, maybe even handing up the Raphael painting Bakunin mounted on a barricade during the Dresden insurrection – an act which would not have met with the youthful Wagner's disapproval.
There is nothing in this country remotely comparable to such a contradictory, almost incommensurate, development, a development so mind bending it easily risks being dismissed as utter nonsense in a 'common sense' country like Britain, the rapid decline of 'revolutionary' romanticism following the death of Shelley and Byron never, later on, bearing the fruit it promised. So excepting the late 1960s, art was never subject to critique here, and then it was rapidly overpowered and hushed up, like it never existed. Not however before the ideas had begun to seriously affect sections of the industrial working class, particularly in the north east, the ground having been prepared well by Jack Common, a figure comparable, in our time, to the 19th century German cobbler Joseph Dieztgen who floated his own version of the abolition of philosophy. Concept artists are colossally ignorant, but if we grant that the beginnings of a critique of art here could be said to have arisen from within the ranks of the industrial working class itself, then it gives an added meaning to their anti industrial bias and their effortless cooptation by finance. It is a fear of being exposed by the working class, though not in the name of stuckism but by an imagination that intervenes and takes control of the social process. In fact the rise of concept/installation art, massively accelerating if not beginning in the early 1990s, precisely coincides with the shocking decline in revolt and substituted for that absence of revolt in a country growing daily more conservative because of the want of revolt. Consequently the ragbag of concept artists must fear the return of revolt because its imaginative implications could easily begin to outstrip anything they are capable of, and in fact already does so, despite going largely unrecognised. Already individual, imaginative reactions to the financial crises is putting them in the shade - and not just because of their, now, transparent collusion with finance capital. To borrow a preferred Wall St term, we could describe them as being hit by a 'double whammy'.
A few days prior to the Sotheby's sale, Hirst's face appeared on the cover of Time magazine (Sept 5/20O8) prompted obviously by the coming 'sale of the century', or 'as Time magazine called it 'the biggest payday in the history of art'.The article was something of a revelation when compared with its average UK counterpoint, accustomed more to treating celebrities as mythical beings, the crowned heads of the entertainment life style we are all meant to worship, and aspire to. Detached from the humdrum world of commerce, money just naturally accrues to this uniquely English variation on media royalty. And when they are derided in popular 'Hello' type magazines, it tends to be over their waistlines and faulty boob jobs, not bank balances and shady business interests, which, as media angels, they are 'above'.
Time magazine showed up Hirst for what he was: an astute businessman. Here we learnt for the first time he employs 180 people at six locations in England including two massive facilities in Gloucestershire housed in converted Second World War aircraft hangars, his scores of assistants executing his 'product lines' (sic) which are hugely profitable. "Time" also went on to ask 'where is the rule that the artist can't sell his work at auction, implying the problem really was one of productive capacity and 'that it was always likely Hirst would be the first artist to do that (having) the production capacity to supply a big sale'.(our italics). This former Young British Artist (YBA) should now be in the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and could be. However not because of the CBI's stuffiness in these matters, but rather on account of his links with finance and the City of London, which the CBI, as the champion of the industrial interest in this country, is still chary of, despite making concessions to it over the last quarter of a century.
Incidentally, there is a whiff of the 1970s and early 80s in the way the CBI is being increasingly approached for interviews, as, at the same time, are the heads of big trade unions like unite, Amicus and GMB. For instance a CBI member in the FT of Sept 25th 2008 conjectoring on how best to cope with the anti-business mood, noted that after the South Sea Bubble parliament debated sewing the chief perpetrator (by implication the then PM, Robert "Pillage" Walpole) into a sack with snakes and throwing him into the Thames. And David Frost of the British Chamber of Commerce claimed in the same financial newspaper, businesses would gain influence in proportion to their distance from toxic bankers, adding proudly 'none of our members are investment banks' and that "now there will be greater attention to the productive side of the economy'. Even John Hutton, the business secretary, sounded a different note, emphasizing after years of the government downplaying its importance, the manufacturing side of the economy, saying the UK was the world's sixth largest manufacturer. This was on the occasion of the unveiling on Sept 4th, of a manufacturing plan for a 'green' low carbon economy, including nuclear power, a month before the financial hurricane was really to come ashore. Both the CBI and the TUC broadly backed the government initiative, though neither dared say the £150 million of government subvention was derisory. When a "green" new deal is finally forced on the government, even £150 billion will look a mite penny pinching.
We also learnt the Sotheby's sale had been given a for-sale treatment the like of which this country had not seen since the unveiling of Concord. It was a world event, a global sales campaign. If we weren't aware of it beforehand, Britain, as the workshop of world advertising, had come of age selling crap. A selection was shipped off in august for viewing in The Hampshires. It also went to New Delhi. In June Hirst had flown to Kiev to attend a Paul McCartney concert and a party hosted by Victor Pinchuk, a Ukranian steel billionaire who owns several pieces of Hirst's shit. A month later Hirst gave a private viewing of some of his Sotheby works to Daria Zhukova whose boyfriend is Abramovich and so on and so on--------.
M/s Zhukova is becoming a fixture of the international art circuit and earlier on this year she hosted the Serpentine gallery summer party where she was seen arriving with Hirst. The Hyde Park gallery's long association with concept art (we used to love vandalising the exhibits in the 1970s, stopping on the way home from building jobs to piss (on Henry Moore's glorified doggie bone) as well as re-arranging (i.e. wrecking installations) like nicking cloth from Barry Flanagan's crap in the Serpentine gallery for use as battered settee throwovers, way before Tate Modern was even dreamt of, had been crowned with a makeover by the world's foremost shit-house of an architect, Frank Gehry. Like Hirst, Gehry had come from 'nothing', this bad-boy–made-good diva playing on his blue collar, regular guy, credentials, those of a man who once worked as a trucker. Though the makeover was attended by a fanfare of publicity, the glitz of Bilbao's Guggenheim 'titanium splendour' was by now really wearing off and doubts were being raised regarding the value of 'iconic architecture' and the 'Bilbao effect'. This last however, whereby it is hoped rundown towns (like Middlesbrough and Hull for example) are revived through the construction of candy floss, mega-follies with sculptural overtones, is an aesthetic diversion of jumbo proportions that endeavours to screen from view the real problems. However doubts about their salutary effect did not come from nowhere and were prompted by the growing credit crises then only just beginning, no one then having much of an inkling of what was to come. But it still was enough to sink construction projects that reached for the sky, like London's proposed 'Cheese Grater', the 'Walkie Talkie' and the 'Shard of Glass'. Though sites have been cleared, any further construction has been halted, and all that is left of the City of London's edifice millenarianism are the metaphors.
(The same logic may not be quite so true of Paris where a 50 story glass pyramid – the 'Witch's Hat' - has been proposed, the first of 6 avant-garde skyscrapers on the city's outskirts. Had "The Times" article on them - 6/9/08 - used the term banlieu, rather than outskirts, we would have instantly guessed at the reason why. The 'innovative' towers were being built to fragment the banlieus, recently the scene of heavy, often hopelessly negative rioting, completely lacking the generous allure of their counterpart here in 1981. The first scheme will be the privately funded Le Projet Triangle at Porte de Versailles designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron who were also responsible for Tate Modern and the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing. In addition there are prefecture plans to build 50m high residential towers in the city centre that will provide social housing, whereas in London the social housing provision, in exchange for planning permission for evermore taller buildings, was often waived. France has not succeeded in pacifying the working class to anything like the same degree as this country has. Yet it has opted to jump a few stages by going in for an artbuild colossi almost immediately, the towers a form of totem pole the poor will be encouraged to celebrate and to dance around , holding roman candles rather than brandishing molotovs. This mega aestheticisation is today's equivalent of Baron Hausmann's reconstruction of Paris during the 1860s, the military freeways, or rather boulevards, too wide to ever barricade again, though that is exactly what would happen to them in the Paris Commune of 1871.
For the new breed of 'deviant' prima donna architect, this crisis is also a mini role crisis and means rather more than just taking a hit in the pocket as it would have done for a sixties architect like Colonel Seifort, a name forever identified with spec-building, his notorious Centre Point skyscraper in Tottenham Court Rd in Central London standing empty until well into the seventies. Gehry when questioned about the Serpentine makeover, though bridling at the growing criticism of his one-trick, celebrity status, was clever enough to imply the makeover did not fully bear his imprimatur and that it was more of a collective accident, a piece of foolery almost ("it needed to be a little more festive"), his son having the decisive say when he "made a model with butterflies flying through, and that turned into the glass roof". Gehry is anything but self-effacing and glories in his title of "greatest architect in the world" underlined, as he says, by the fact his Disney concert hall in LA "is now the icon of LA – it has replaced the Hollywood sign". But, as with Hirst, one gets the impression Gehry is uneasy, and that he is at some kind of a crossroads, not sure what to do next if architects and architecture are to stay in step with the rapidly changing landscape.
Hirst's home town of Leeds (now the UKs second financial centre) is beginning to look like a high rise ghost town of un-let and half completed buildings, its immobile cranes echoing the emptying shipyards of the Tyne, Wear and Tees over a quarter of a century ago. But the financial/service economy having gone bust there is nothing now to take its place, an analyst from the Dresdner Kleinwort bank describing with inspired accuracy how a visit to Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester had exposed "a near apocalyptic landscape". But nowhere has the landscape of apocalypse gone further than in Bradford, its centre now a boarded up 'bell pit' of colossal size, Westfield having pulled out of the £320 million retail development, with space for around 100 retailers, for lack of prelets. The intention had been to bring Bradford's disused canal, and which is now mostly filled in, right into the heart of Bradford, a project of Mayan proportions and the brain child of Will Allsop, Britain's reply to Gehry.
For well over two years during a comparative boom period, the site lay undeveloped, huge pyramids of hardcore and spoil rearing over slick hoardings advertising 'urban energy', and 'retail therapy'. Though an embarrassment to Bradford Council Regeneration, it became a symbol of the disconnect between the council and locals to whom it was obvious this latest gamble would never pay off and that Bradford was condemned to become more of a laughing stock than ever.Though Bradford is always the focus of intense media interest nationally, this time popular disgruntlement with council hubris, though going unnoticed, contained a new promise. For Bradfordians were beginning to take a liking to the slowly regenerating piles of spoil and that were now accidentally bringing out something previously never guessed at in the Victorian buildings circling the perimeter, their quarry-like resettlement also looking set to become a haven for wild life. (Long before Hirst gassed Blue Morpho butterflies in their hundreds, Common Blue butterflies in the early 1990s were to be found in the sidings of Foster Sq station just on the northern tip of the Great Hole. This unusual and delightful colony was interned under a retail park around the same time as Hirst began his ecocidal collages). The heaped up site was like a geological cataclysm, an inadvertent piece of building contractors 'land art' that spoke out in a way planned, 'aesthetic' land art never could and that eventually turned into a very costly mudslide, burying the council's dream of Bradford ever becoming a financial /retailing centre on par with Hirst's childhood venue, nearby Leeds. There the crash will prove every bit as disastrous as in Bradford though it wont be quite so embarrassingly obvious, although "The Spherical", Leeds answer to London's "Gherkin", will now be pulled. Though we do not have the precise figures for Leeds, in July 2008, 5 metre sq foot of space stood empty in London's financial centre alone. What a difference a week now makes, never mind a year: at the beginning of 2007 the Guardian reported in an article "The Age of Tall Towers" that Canary Wharf was starting to run out of space and that the City of London had invested in 10 acres of derelict rail yards in neighbouring Tower Hamlets.
As ever, Bradford is a city of extremes, giving rise to all manner of failed dreams, swinging from the triumphal march of free trade liberalism, to the opposite extreme of physical force Chartism and the ILP, easily the best social democratic, political party there ever was. The fact that Bradford ratepayers will have to pay for the council's latter day, arriviste patsy of a free market extravaganza, could ruin Allsop's already faltering reputation, an event that is likely to be mirrored all over the world and will likewise severely damage Hirst, Gehry, et al, - despite the fact both of them were canny enough to realize some kind of change was in the air and that they too would have to change, if everything was to remain the same.
Now that Westfield has shut up shop, the question has to be what next, for few Bradfordians are likely to believe there will ever be a recommencement of the original project. There have even been calls for a popular ballot of what to do with the vacant Odeon cinema, promising graffiti appearing on the condemned building like "build somewhere else", "Great, more faceless shops and offices", and "what about the homeless?" In Bolton, Greater Manchester, some 80,000 people signed a petition rejecting the massive redevelopment of the town centre, aimed at clearing out small traders and bringing in the ubiquitous High St. brands. From small beginnings come great things and these initiatives, especially now, could easily spill over into direct action and a re-engagement with the environment - perhaps even a resumption of mass squats combined with a more general seizing hold of an urban terrain progressively more defined by commercial banks, but now in the process of being abandoned and left to find its own way. The seizure of scores of buckling steel, glass and concrete, financial white elephants and, by implication, their redefinition, could be the signal for a second, 'sustainable', industrial revolution and one political parties would instantly seek to head off through a Green New Deal.
|Above: Two very telling bits of graffiti on Bradford's failed Westfield hoardings and way better than anything Hirst could aspire to. Below left: Useless school of Banksy on same hoardings near an interesting 'poem' comment on Ruskin's Bradford. Maybe revolutionary intelligence is in the offing?|
The north has never overcome the memory of the 1930s depression, a memory now kept alive by the post war generation. In the Bolton of the late 1920s just before the Wall St crash there were 216 cotton mills and related bleaching and dyeing works employing 1000s of workers. When the mills closed as a result of the depression, they did eventually reopen again. Today industry, as the focus of the contradiction of capitalism and class struggle, no longer applies like it once did in the west. Attention is shifting and graffiti threatens to turn into guerrilla fact, the very nature of the deed thrusting to one side the surface nuisance of street art, which was however still sufficient to deter a neo-conservative like Hirst. (Interestingly the Banksy auction a few days later was a financial flop, not just on account of the financial meltdown but because a signature is all today. No one could be certain they weren't purchasing a fake!) Newly refurbished town centres, empty offices and apartment blocks are becoming potent urban ledgers of mounting questions that are beginning to wrack the soul more than they have ever done in the history of capitalism. They are the relics of a way of life that is ending and their empty shells mock us for believing an economy driven by gravity defying house and property prices, near limitless credit, financial services and installation art was ever a viable form of capitalism. However the urban legacy of the weightless economy weighs ever more heavily upon us and is still overpoweringly present. With each day that passes it becomes more of an outrage to look on, self reproach and rising anger demanding we turn this appalling legacy of financial eye wash to a proper use. The times are now so urgent there is a growing feeling it is now or never. More than ever the revolution begins at home and even for capitalism it is bound to begin with a re-evaluation of the role of housing, a similar destruction of fictive values more likely in the market for concept art than its opposite. For the time of concept art and the big-mac baroque of architects like Gehry coincides with an ecoli upturn in capitalism's health and a downturn in class struggle, which is as much to say the entire contemporary arty shebang has its roots in the absence of defiance and that once the masses begin to make history again it will be swept aside by it.
This is one scenario, the other is the success of the Sotheby's auction which may not turn out to be not such of a fluke after all and a sign of things to come, both perspectives unfolding at one and the same time. But if the latter proves triumphant humanity is done for. And so we might as well profit from our demise and be photographed alongside Hirst hugging a corpse in a Leeds mortuary, the original silk screen with Jay Jopling selling for £1,049,250.
So for the moment Hirst is riding high, but not high enough to sneeringly dismiss, as he once could, the rebel scenarios sketched here. At a previous auction, the royal family of Qatar had briefly made Hirst the most expensive living artist by paying $19.2 million for 'Lullaby Spring'. Only recently Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, was approached by a beleaguered Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs for a handout. Though shunned, it was yet one more sign of the Middle East's growing financial clout.(In fact Qatar's biggest financial investment, according to the FT of Sept 25th, is in Barclays becoming the UK's bank biggest investor after a $8.3b capital raising issue). There is a new billionaire class ready to purchase contemporary art with many of the buyers coming from Russia, Asia and the Middle East. This class is lifting prices worldwide and Hirst was there to butter it up. However post the financial crash his pre-sale tour takes on a new meaning. Rather than just out to flog something to this waananbe new class, that needs to be seen making it culturally and not just financially, Hirst could be the first in line of a new type of ambassador, a practising art ambassador to countries where there are still vast pools of unspent cash looking for an outlet. Though their sovereign funds generally don't need much prompting when it comes to snapping up cash strapped western banks, Hirst's act of cultural ambassadorship could be seen as greasing the wheels, and art, in the wake of his successful Sotheby's sale, the one investment opportunity that is safe. With art as the one commodity that increasingly helps buy all the rest, the notion of the Financial Market State (which, don't kid yourself, is far from over and done with)must not only undergo a very painful financial readjustment but also an aesthetic one, which the latter may well help sweeten.
Perhaps this is what Hirst had in mind when prior to the sale he said 'I've got a bit exhausted and need to reinvent myself' meaning he was beginning to feel the need to take up more of a political rather than financial position in world markets, and which was there in embryo when New Labour made a point of patronising the YBAs back in the early 1990s, though admittedly no one then could have remotely guessed it would ever go this far. Underneath Hirst's photo on the cover of Time magazine were written the words 'artist as rock star', an inscription that puzzled us. Was Time magazine comparing the forthcoming sale to an auction of pop memorabilia – or that Hirst was now as rich as the likes of McCartney and Bono, and therefore a first for a visual artist? Though never explained we think neither, but that Time mag had an inkling of Hirst's likely future direction, a direction more in tune with that of Geldorf and Bono, however one that is likely to be far less 'charitable' and much more business-like, though Bono did fulsomely praise the economist, and arch privateer, Jeffrey Sachs, and his 'philanthropic', free market, solutions to the problem of African poverty. Unsurprisingly he counts Bono amongst his friends and in February he had worked with Sotheby's in New York 'soliciting' (though they scarcely needed further encouragement in the art of prostitution) 100 major artists including Jasper Johns and Anish Kapoor to donate work to a sale that raised $42 million for RED, a 'socially conscious' business venture co-founded by Bono.
Hirst is likely to be far less sentimental and it is possible he has a thing or two to teach the financial markets regarding the manipulation of the market for contemporary art. His diamond encrusted skull 'For the Love of God' (reproduced on the front page of the Financial Times when it was first unveiled) was offered to the world's billionaires with a price tag of a $100 million. Hirst last year claimed that some numbskull had bought it for the asking price. However it turned out the skull had been purchased by a still unidentified consortium of investors that included Dunphy, Jopling (owner of the Malevich invoking 'White Cube' gallery) and Hirst and that they will resell it after it has gone on tour. But meanwhile the in-house pretence of a sale has worked, and Hirst's latest piece of financial jugglery is to show silk screen reproductions of it in the 'White Cube' gallery. These are then sprinkled with diamond dust and sold to the art market equivalent of the sub prime mortgager for a mere $10,000 each. There is a chance it may no longer be so easy for these mugs to flip their top dollar, MacArt investments, and, as if anticipating a financial meltdown in the market for Hirsts' , Newsweek reported in August that the 'White Cube' had a backlog of over 200 of his unsold works and that overproduction had caused the market for spot and spin paintings to fall. One of these 'Hydrocodne' had sold at Christie's in London last year for $818,000, but resold this year at Sotheby's in New York for only $589,000.
A sound, left social democratic case, arguing for Hirst's arrest can be made, for evidently he is adept at manipulating the market in his work. As the world's richest living artist he has more than enough money enabling him to bid up prices. However the practise of ramping is the opposite of shorting (even if the end result – more cash – is the same) and it is the latter that has presently got the goat of financial authorities here, but more especially in the states which has taken a much tougher line on the matter altogether. Though scores of arrests are likely to follow in the States, here the FSA has already begun to soften its 'tough' stance, slapping down requests from supermarkets, airlines etc seeking protection from short sellers who sell borrowed shares they expect to drop in price in the hope of buying them back later for less. The Independent of Oct 8th reported on how short sellers have targeted the UK's biggest pub companies and retailers as they try to cash in on the deteriorating consumer outlet, shorting shares in Weatherspoon's and Punch Taverns, while HMV and DSGI, owner of PC world and Curry's chains in the UK, are the focus in retailing. So, all in all, there is not much chance of seeing Hirst indicted for financial chicanery and concept art put in the stocks for being inherently mired in fictive capital and we free to throw rubbish at sheer junk, thus really making something of it.
Hirst has the luck of the devil and had the practise of shorting by investment banks, and by hedge funds in particular, been outlawed three days earlier prior to the Sotheby's sale then Hirst and Dunphy may now be lamenting its failure. As it is Dunphy, in the role of Hirst's impresario, could claim "I woke up this morning in the teeth of the gale of recession. But we came out as confident as ever".
The sentiment was echoed by Cheyenne Westphal, the head of contemporary art at Sotheby's, who hailed the record breaking sale as an 'historic moment'. How much the untouchables – i.e. the hedge funds - were responsible for Hirst's well-timed success, giving at least a temporary new lease of life to concept art, we cannot as yet say. But certainly the hedgies played a major part in Hirst success. His most famous shark, "The Physical impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone living" was commissioned by Charles Saatchi to be then sold to Steve Cohen, a hedge fund patron and now given pride of place in the museum of modern art in New York. The hedge funds began to build up collections worth over time more than the Saatchi bros who had been prime movers in the YBA and "Cool Britannia", the latter a New Labour packaging together of art, finance and politics. How much the UK is a prisoner of hedge funds, in fact the hedge fund capital of the world, can be gauged from the fact that PM Gordon Brown's chief financial advisor, Ronald Cohen, is a hedge fund top dog.
Art critics today see more depths of inanity in what they are paid to look at, than at any other time in history. Indeed they are that depth, for without them the emperor would have no clothes. Restricted initially to a small coterie of nitwits, their influence over the past twenty years has broadened immeasurably and threatens to engulf the mass of the people, a people that has lost its capacity for intelligent derision and subversive play. But for the critics' capacity to find meaning and purpose where there is none, the whole of installation/concept/performance art would go up in smoke. And so we are encouraged to see not the look of a financial shark in Hirst's cod-eyes, but that of a supreme ironist. And so a modern day financial Duchamp gazes out from a Leeds council estate. The prime lot at the auction was 'The Golden Calf' which set a new personal record of £10.3 million for Hirst. The hooves and horns are 18 carat gold and the head is crowned by a gold Egyptian solar disk. As the Time article said "this false idol is designed to flatter, beguile and parody the big swinging billionaires who are likely to bid for it". Not a bad bit of cheapo journalism and I began to briefly doubt myself. Maybe Hirst is taking the piss after all? However I then choked on his defence of his art, something Duchamp at his best would never have sank to, claiming his product was "art first though, money second" adding "I have taken the risk art will outshine the money".
However the idea that he playing with financiers, milking them for all they are worth and making fools of them at their expense, could be a big factor in saving Hirst in the eyes of the people. Hirst, if he is to remain the astute businessman he was in a rising market, must now push that idea in a falling market. It could be an essential step in the renewal and 'democratisation' of global finance capital, a renewal that is very different from the idea of playing the markets, enshrined in the idea of a 'popular capitalism'. Becoming a casino of irony, its credo will be make light of loss and gain and accord with a deepening sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Thinking it pointless to lay anything aside for the future, like pension provision, humanity will increasingly just live from one day to the next, taking what's on offer and not looking a gift horse (or golden calf) in the mouth too much.
To briefly return to Germaine Greer's fatuous adulation of Hirst in the Guardian (22/8/08) hints at the possibility of a re-evaluation. Her abject surrender to neo liberal market values, just at the moment of their long overdue "correction", is stomach turning. She says the "art form of the 21st century is marketing" and that Hirst understands this, and which implies (though even here Greer is not foolish enough to explicitly say so)' his packaged bundles of nothingness are a form of aesthetic securitisation. To safeguard against bankruptcy and the calling in of the aesthetic receiver, she describes Hirst's manipulation of the market (rather than rigging, which he is clearly guilty of ) as "revolutionary even", a sufficiently loose use of the term as to imply "communist" overtones befitting the astonishing, and totally unforeseen, drift into a new kind of state capitalism, with, at least for the moment, copper bottom guarantees for the banking fraternity but not much in it for the brothers and sisters. Still it has enough in common with that wretched misnomer, "soviet communism", for Greer to propose the eventual rebranding of Hirst as Concept Commissar, state propaganda substituting for the market, a new apparatchniki for the neo liberal who's who of the market place.
This will be one side of the eventual global 'settlement', the other, an increased propensity to insurrection that Hirst will not in the least find droll and a fit subject for ironising comment. Of this we can be certain: there will be no ambiguity about his response to a revolution he does not stand to gain from.
Hirst's insistence on the 'democratic' character of the Sotheby's auction now takes on a whole new perspective, even though it was far from democratic, despite whatever Hirst, the shop keeper, said to the contrary. He has gone on record as saying: " I hate the way you walk into a gallery and say I want to buy a Damien Hirst, and they say 'Who are you'. "I much prefer to be in a shop where you can just go in and buy". In fact the sale was a strictly all ticket affair, though 21,000 visitors turned up to see the show, making it the most viewed pre-sale exhibition in London auction history. Sotheby's backed up Hirst's democratic posturing to the hilt. Oliver Baker, the senior specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby's, said the auction was an "experiment that was breaking new ground" and that "many of the works in the auction were small paintings that were affordable to many". He concluded "From the outset Damien wanted to democratise this sale so everybody could be involved". Cashing in one's chips at a last chance casino that is open all hours and to all, and wearing just a hint of a mocking smile as though it didn't matter all that much – is this the future the new global financial, market state, makeover is preparing for us? This at least was one scenario before it became apparent the devastating anarchy of the financial markets was such as to rule out the possibility of even a state regulated semblance of a return to old ways in the immediate future. If Hirst is as business savvy as he pretends to be, will he be able to make the transition to these changed times, perhaps aided and abetted by the likes of Greer who is more at ease with the notion of a social market economy that his present business manager Dunphy, despite his working class roots? Or will he simply become a casualty of the free market, this human capital write down unable to reinvent himself in a way the times demand? And will it a resurgent revolutionary movement be any better at critiquing him in a relevant manner? Questions, questions, questions and yet more questions, there number suggesting we really are approaching a cross roads.
What has been said here is yesteryear. Or is it? Surely the broad outlines will merely morph while the essential of what's here will remain the same. Hirst will no longer pickle sharks unless they've been given a coat of green paint about to be submitted to a penniless public to gawp at though mustn't touch because of a possible future luxury price tag endlessly prorogued. Perhaps it will be placed at the centre of the abandoned Westfield black hole in the centre of Bradford? Anything to give the town it's centre back and get people moving through it again.
There will most likely be a green New Deal of some sort or another involving large sections of the new unemployed in creating a relatively non-carbon eco industrial revolution and a very labour intensive one at that. In some ways it could follow on from some of the 1930s forgotten Conservation Corps in America which husbanded eroded soil and planted huge forests etc. It will though be a green New Deal continuing the momentum of the aestheticized economy through wrenched free of the previous era of speculative bubbles thrown up by an overblown phase of fictive capital.
And like the previous New Deal it will essentially fail in superceding the essential bubble and bust cycle of capitalism. (They always do and one need look no further than the pump primed Japanese experience of the 1990s and mentioned elsewhere here). We forget at our peril how looming war in Europe and the Pacific was the major factor in pulling America out of the depression. For us perhaps it will be the twists and turns of an aesthetic greenery, as new wars of an inter-imperialist character are prepared deploying the former characteristics as green artistically designed rockets and hi-tech, installation oriented weapons of mass destruction are rolled off quickly constructed production lines as a new mass slaughter is prepared dwarfing in proportion the horrendous wars, bombs and holocausts of the 20th century. 'the artists rifles' platoons of the First World War will have nothing on this one....
Stuart Wise: Autumn 2008
(This is first part of a trilogy: The next is Marx on credit largely from Capital 111