£10m for this? The greed of the art world is more obscene than the City's

The world's economy staggers from one disaster to another, each worse than the last, like storms in the hurricane season. Airlines and travel companies go bust, stock exchanges panic and yo-yo, and those bastions of pure capitalism, investment banks, are crumbling.

These are desperately worrying times for us all. Yet amid of all this anxiety and gloom, there's one industry that really does seem to be gilt-edged and disaster-proof. It's called art.

This week, Damien Hirst's auction of his own works at Sotheby's showed a canny knack for exploiting both the financial uncertainty and the tastelessness of the very rich.

'The Golden Calf' by British artist Damien Hirst.

Damien Hirst's 'The Golden Calf' sold for £10.3million

Nameless bidders calling from unknown locations eagerly parted with millions for examples of Hirst's work, which they doubtless have convinced themselves are both beautiful objects in their own right, as well as sound investments.

Star attraction of the auction was The Golden Calf, a monument of bejewelled vulgarity and kitsch for which somebody parted with £10.3million.


There could surely be no more potent symbol of the cultural poverty of our money-obsessed age than this. To the rest of us, the calf looks as bling and crass as the diamonds on a dodgy Russian oligarch's trophy wife.

But money has spoken. At £10million-plus, it must surely be a work of genius, mustn't it?

Defenders of Hirst's ruthless commercialism point out that art has always cost money. Yes, of course. The Medicis of Florence were not only the supreme patrons of the Italian Renaissance, of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, they were also Europe's wealthiest bankers (with a knack for 'creative' bookkeeping that seems all too familiar in the Square Mile today).

Art has never existed on some pure and airy plane, divorced from the world. But there is simply no comparison between what Michelangelo and Hirst have produced. Look at the Sistine Chapel, and then look at Hirst's works - his pickled animals, dead flies and pill collections.

The contrast would be laughable if it weren't such a terrible example of how our cultural values have collapsed.

The truth is, Hirst is not an artist, he's a businessman who manufactures art for a carefully groomed, gullible and obedient clientele. His name is now a global brand, like Nike or Coca-Cola. And his concerns are those of the hard-headed businessman: big, quick profits.

artist Damien Hirst

British artist Damien Hirst


Whether golden calves or diamond-encrusted skulls, his works have nothing to say except 'Look at me!' 'Buy me!' Pretty much the same sterile, top-volume message given out by any glossy consumer goods in High Street shop windows.

He is openly cynical about his actual 'product' anyway. Did he make this particular work himself? a critic once asked. 'I couldn't be f***ing a***d,' came the charming reply.

And as for his 'spot' paintings - much like DIY charts of paint colours, only a bit pricier - they were mostly done by an assistant. 'The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel,' he joked.

You might admire his entrepreneurship, but to compare him to Rembrandt or Goya, as he does himself, is ludicrous.

Traditionally, the great artists have been acutely aware both of the past and of working for the future, leaving a rich legacy to coming generations. But Hirst and his peers blatantly appear not to care less about the artistic tradition or posterity.

They certainly wouldn't deign to spend years humbly copying the Old Masters to learn their craft. Why bother when you can be declared an instant genius?

As for posterity, the wretched parade of pickled sharks, gilded calves and desiccated butterflies do not inspire much confidence.

Indeed, at least one of Hirst's works has already started rotting. His 14ft tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde, with its pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, began smelling unpleasantly fishy very quickly.

In an extraordinary operation, the tank had to be drained by a specialist team clad in industrial jumpsuits, and then re-pickled with fresh solution. Hirst himself never laid a finger on his artwork. Indeed, the air around the poor, putrefying creature was so toxic he wasn't allowed near it.

It's a vivid image of the modern art industry: both poisonous and bogus. But very, very profitable.

What I find so insulting is the apparent casual indifference that many of these artists have for their own output. In 2004, a fire at a warehouse destroyed numerous controversial Britart works, including a Chapman brothers' atrocity made out of little plastic soldiers, entitled 'Hell', and Chris Ofili's 'Captain S**t'. ( Contemporary artists still think swearing is a sign of creativity.)

What was extraordinary was how little these artists cared about the destruction of their work. Ofili shrugged it off with a laugh, while the Chapman brothers memorably commented: 'It's only art.'

Posterity? Who cares? Take the money and run. Art is just a means to a very wealthy end.

It's not just the shock-and-gore creatives who line their pockets. Charles Saatchi himself has declared Hirst 'a genius'. But then he would, wouldn't he? He owns a lot of Hirst's works.

If he can persuade others he's right, suddenly his collection is worth a whole lot more. Some might compare it to insider dealing. Indeed, the dodgy things that go on in banks and stock exchanges have nothing on the art world for barefaced effrontery and obscene financial greed.

In one sense, I suppose none of this should matter. If someone is rich and stupid enough to pay £10million for a dead cow then that's their own concern. But the trouble is, the primacy of the shock artists is in danger of killing real art stone dead.

Hirst and his ilk are not fashioning works whose creativity will shine down through the ages. They are practical jokers who set out to tweak the nose of the art establishment.

For a few years, they were a moderately entertaining diversion. But now they have become the establishment - treated not like irksome children blowing raspberries at the back of the classroom, but as geniuses who have created a whole new stylistic rulebook.

In doing so, they have not only lost any small claim to novelty, but have created a cultural void from which future artists, with more enduring aesthetic values, may struggle to emerge.


Yet does anyone believe that in 100 years - perhaps far sooner - Hirst's work will be treated as anything other than an embarrassing footnote in British culture? I seriously doubt it.

Certainly, there could be no greater contrast between today's aesthetic plutocrats and universally loved artists such as Vincent van Gogh, for whom painting was virtually a form of religious worship. During his painful, poverty-stricken lifetime, Van Gogh famously sold only two paintings, one of them to his loyal brother, Theo.

Unlike today's utterly predictable 'shock' artists, Van Gogh really was a visionary ahead of his time. He worked through penury and neglect with unswerving dedication, and the results are plain to see.

A century on from his lifetime, the queues never vanish outside the beautiful, peaceful little Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Ordinary people from around the world wait patiently for the chance of just five minutes in front of the sublimely happy Sunflowers, or the tormented and despairing Wheat Field With Crows.

They don't need anyone to tell them what great art is. And they're not so stupid as to worship a Golden Calf.

Yes, Hirst and his auctioneers may have deemed this week's sale to be an unalloyed triumph. But back in the real world, with Britain plunging headlong into recession and ordinary families struggling to pay the bills, it was a testament only to the vulgarity and excess of an insular elite.

Or as Oscar Wilde once put it, when giving his definition of a cynic: they are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

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