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Will Damien Hirst Dot the Art Market to Death?

Just when you think a contemporary art megastar such as Damien Hirst has done his worst to make a mockery of the modern art world, he finds a new weapon or, in this case, returns to an old one—dots. Most famous for his The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, an embalmed tiger shark in a glass case, Hirst penchant for controversy doesn’t always go big. In fact, he’s decided to go small, but on a grand scale, with lots and lots of dots. Hirst convinced gallery owner Larry Gagosian to allow him to take over all 11 of Gagosian’s galleries around the globe and flood them with a new crop of the same “spot paintings” he did years ago in a “retrospective” of new works on an old theme. Even worse, Hirst won’t even be painting all the new spot paintings himself. For everyone who hates contemporary art and its excesses, Hirst’s spotlight on spots may send them over the edge and tip the art market itself into oblivion.

In her New York Times piece, Carol Vogel quotes Richard Dorment, the art critic for London’s The Daily Telegraph, bemoaning Hirst’s spot paintings—which consist of multicolored grids of circle—as “fantastically boring.” “The accumulation of scores of them in one place like the Tate’s Turbine Hall could make a visual impact, but I can’t see the point of filling all of Gagosian’s galleries around the world,” Dorment goes on. “What purpose will it serve?” Aside from pure profit, little purpose seems evident from the stunt “retrospective.” Dorment actually can visualize some purpose if Hirst were to exhibit in the Tate or some other accredited museum, which I can’t, but I think we’d agree that Hirst has little interest in museums other than how much they’ll pay for his work or promote him to potential investors.

News of Hirst’s dotted world tour comes on the heels of Blake Gopnik’s recent screed, “Why Is Art So Damned Expensive?” “A glass cabinet full of surgical instruments, by Damien Hirst, had sold for nearly $2.5 million at White Cube’s stand,” Gopnik writes of the recently completed Art Basel Miami Beach show. “Despite the big names attached to these objects—and whatever their artistic worth—any normal observer would immediately wonder: Stools, for half a million dollars? Three times that for some plain paint on canvas? Why is art so damned expensive?” I think that Gopnik unfairly lumps Ellsworth Kelly (as the “plain paint on canvas” guy) in with Hirst and cohorts, but there is some truth to the fact that “normal” observers fail to fathom the prices that some works command.

Gopnik goes on to list five key reasons for the soaring prices: prestige, the difficulty of measuring aesthetic value other than in dollars, competition between collectors, new money overheating the market, and the high price tag attached to the title of art patron. In Gopnik’s view, it’s Jeff Koons’ universe and we’re all just living (and enjoying art) in it. If that’s the case, the future of art, which in many ways is the future of the art business, looks bleak. Art’s been a business since Giotto painted frescos for a fee, but the unbearable lightness of the current art market threatens to inflate a financial bubble that will eventually burst and, perhaps, take all the possible investors with it.

Hirst and Koons represent the twin towers of terrible art today—mass produced work based on an elite “visionary” passing down an idea to anonymous workers to realize. What Gopnik and other naysayers need to realize (and publicize better) is that Hirst and Koons are the 1% of the art world. There’s a creative, hard-working 99% out there that suffers first from Hirst and Koons sucking up all the oxygen and publicity and secondly from the media allowing itself to be suckered into facilitating the farce. What we should do with Hirst’s dots is connect them in the right way and see the bigger picture of an art world that’s wider and more wonderful than its most famous and/or infamous names.

[Image: Damien Hirst. Image source: Mark III Photonics/]


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