The Medium is the Market

Hal Foster (London Review of Books, 9 October 2008)


In 1975 Andy Warhol peered into the future and saw…Damien Hirst? ‘Business Art is the step that comes after Art,’ Warhol wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Not only was it okay for artists to make as much money as possible, but ‘making money is art’ and ‘good business is the best art.’ At the time Warhol looked like the master of Business Art—he established ‘Andy Warhol Enterprises’ as early as 1957, and films, Interview magazine, books and TV programs soon followed—but his operation was small beer by contemporary standards. Today it is artists like Hirst who set the bar for ‘good business’. As the world knows, on 15 and 16 September in London he bypassed his two major dealers (White Cube and Gagosian) and auctioned a large lot of new work directly at Sotheby’s (there were 223 pieces in all), beating the sky-high estimates by a substantial margin. Sales totaled $200.7 million, ten times the old record for a single-artist auction set by Picasso with 88 works in 1993.

In other news Wall Street melted down during those same days. Over the previous weekend Merrill Lynch was bought in a fire sale by Bank of America and Lehman Brothers vanished into thin air, both victims of the metastatic crisis in mortgages securities, while Dow Jones plunged 500 points on Monday, its worst day since 9/11, and dove nearly another 500 on Wednesday, even though the US government bailed out the insurance giant AIG the day before, in another act of socialized capitalism whereby gains are privatized and losses shared by all. (The government had bailed out Bear Stearns in March, it took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in early September, and, as I write it, still more massive infusions of taxpayer money into the financial system are in the works.) Who knew that the Rapture would mean the downfall of Merrill Lynch and associates, and that the Apocalypse would feature Hirstian beasts in formaldehyde? Not even Sarah Palin could make this stuff up.

The coincidence of the mega-successful auction in London with the meta-financial disaster in New York is striking, and it makes a couple of things clear. First, while New York burns London plays on: it is now the undisputed capital of finance and art alike. Second, even as titans fall, there are still lots of high rollers with money to burn on art, at least outside the US (American buyers were scarce at the Hirst auction). At $18.6 million, the top seller at the Sotheby’s sale was The Golden Calf, a white bullock in formaldehyde, with crown, horns and hoofs made of 18-carat gold: dance on, you idolaters! Yet, finally, how singular is the Hirst phenomenon—by which I mean less the recent auction alone than an entire career strung together by shock and scandal and a body of work whose very medium is a compound of media and market events?

Production for the marketplace has been a fundamental condition of art since the Renaissance, one that promoted its modern forms of portable painting and sculpture and, in dialectical fashion, allowed for autonomous achievement in both. However, the art market as we know it now is a far more recent thing, the effect of an international bourgeoisie that, reconstructed after World War II, emerged in the boom years of the 1960s with surplus capital to expend, some of it on art, particularly American Pop, that brand which, as the art historian Thomas Crow has put it, “looked like products being sold like products.” At that time, too, the network of commercial galleries expanded greatly, as did the influence of dealers and collectors. That contemporary art might be viewed in the first instance as an investment was soon made evident by the rise of high-return auctions, the most notorious being the 1973 sale of the Robert and Ethel Scull collection centered on Pop. Enraged artists saw none of the profits (here the turnabout with Hirst is total).

After the recessionary 1970s, the antiregulatory policies of Reagan and Thatcher promoted a new class of the super-rich, some of whom became very visible collectors, and, naturally enough, they favored market-proven painting and sculpture over forms more experimental and critical in spirit. A telling figure in the 1980s boom was Charles Saatchi, the head of a London-based advertising empire, who was alert not only to the new investment potential of contemporary art but also to the publicity value of its more notorious players (Saatchi was an early backer of Young British Artists such as Hirst). The art market fell dramatically in 1990, three years after the stock crash of 1987; art and financial markets might be connected, but they are hardly synchronized. Later in the decade, however, a fully neoliberal economy produced personal fortunes in excess of those of the 1980s, and an “irrationally exuberant” art market soon roared to life.

If the standard-bearer of the 1980s boom was an advertising executive like Saatchi, then his counterpart in the latest upswing is a hedge-fund manager like Steven Cohen, who has used his enormous profits as founder of SAC Capital to build an extensive collection of postwar art in a few short years. (Cohen bought the first Hirst shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, for $8 million; it is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum.) According to Amy Cappellazzo, international co-head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s auction house, the new type of collector understands contemporary art as ‘an asset one can borrow against, or trade on and defer capital gains taxes on,’ and regards the art market essentially as a branch of the securities markets. An added attraction is that insider trading and price fixing, technically illegal in other areas of investment, are standard practices in the art world. In language that has become common in art circles, Cappellazzo sums up the situation as follows: ‘Art’s recent financial appeal stems from the idea that high-quality works of art were undervalued, and that as the market became more truly global in the past five years, their worth would increase in value as a result of (A) heightened demand for scarce objects, (B) an enormous roll up of private wealth that remains unprecedented, and (C) the market necessity for a new asset class that could trade among individuals globally.’

These conditions might soon change, but for now the extent of the activity is impressive: as primary players in the art market, ad execs and financiers from Western Europe and North America are joined by petrodollar plutocrats from Russia and the Middle East, as well as new moguls from India, Asia, and elsewhere. And the intensity of this activity is also remarkable, as indicated by a turnover at contemporary art auctions that more than quadrupled between 2002 and 2006, with sales at each of the two major houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, approaching $1.5 billion in 2007 alone. Incidentally, Christie’s is controlled by François Pinault, who operates his own museum in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and his own gallery, the Haunch of Venison, in London, Zürich, Berlin, and New York; for this prominent collector, who also owns Gucci among other brands, buying, validating, and selling art can all be done in-house, as it were.

However, even in bubbly times contemporary art is not a sure-fire investment, and investment cannot fully explain its allure in any case. ‘These buyers have a tremendous surplus of economic capital and an equally large deficit of social and cultural capital,’ writes Olav Velthuis, an expert on the art market. ‘By buying contemporary art, they buy access to a social world.’ In this account the motive of the new collectors remains the old one of prestige, position, and ‘pleasure of participation’ (as Crow phrases it)—‘luxury travel on the art-fair circuit, the opening dinners, the right parties, deference from lesser players, access to the artists, etc.’

What makes all this of more than sociological interest is that it bears directly on the production as well as the reception of much art today. For instance, the desire for display brings a demand for scale, indeed for spectacle, with dramatic effects on the costs of both making and exhibiting, whether the works in question are the massive sculptures of Richard Serra, the lavish performances, films, and installations of Matthew Barney, or the light-and-space extravaganzas of Olafur Eliasson. As a result, however international the clientele of high-end art might be, it remains highly exclusive; in fact a tight system of grand patronage has returned, with the most coveted work often bespoken before it is produced and whisked away soon after. This development has led the public to view contemporary art, even more than previously, as a private affair, regardless of the nature of its content or the mode of its address; and the profusion of private museums in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere has reinforced this suspicion.

Of course there is a long history of collections becoming museums, but the current phenomenon amounts to a privatizing of public culture as much as the reverse. A case in point is the ‘venture philanthropy’ of the real-estate billionaire Eli Broad, who has effectively established his own collection, indeed his own museum, within the tax-supported complex of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with no certain commitment for the future. A trustee of an institution acting in his own interest is hardly a unique event, but it is telling of a situation that has led many museum directors and curators to behave as servants of a patron class first and custodians of a collective patrimony second. There is little noblesse in this arrangement, and even less oblige, but then the beneficiaries of a global economy are not likely to feel very loyal to merely local institutions in any case.

The commingling of much contemporary art with the media and the market has affected it in other ways as well. Critic Julian Stallabrass highlights these parallels with corporate mass culture: ‘an emphasis on the image of youth, the prevalence of work that reproduces well on magazine pages, and the rise of celebrity artist; work that cosies up to commodity culture and the fashion industry, and serves as accessible honey pots to sponsors; and a lack of critique, except in defined and controlled circumstances.’ Such connections are significant, but others might be even more structural. For example, once seen as a bohemian outsider, the artist is now regarded as a model of the inventive worker in a post-Fordist economy. According to the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, managerial discourse over the last two decades has promoted attitudes and attributes once associated with the artistic personality: ‘autonomy, spontaneity, rhizomorphous capacity, multitasking (in contrast to the narrow specialization of the old division of labor), conviviality, openness to others and novelty, availability, creativity, visionary intuition, sensitivity to differences, listening to lived experience and receptiveness to a whole range of experience, being attracted to informality and the search for interpersonal contacts.’

Even as managerial discourse has assimilated artistic qualities in this manner, so too have some artists embraced business models with a rigor that puts Warhol to shame. Hirst for one multitasks like mad: he has his own publishing house, clothing line, restaurants past and present, and a ‘Murderme’ collection of art and curiosities that will eventually be put on view in his Victorian Gothic manor in the Cotswolds. He also has an army of assistants, as do his peers in Business Art, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Koons oversees a studio factory with some 90 employees in Manhattan, while Murakami runs a corporation with some 100 employees based near Tokyo and in Brooklyn; the work signed ‘Koons’ or ‘Murakami’ is largely designed on computers by assistants and then executed by fabricators. At times underscoring the collapse between museum art and mass culture, at other times reinscribing the differences to their own benefit, all three artists exemplify the developments at issue here. In each case the market is the very medium of the art.

In the 1980s Koons played on the convergence of art exhibition and commodity display in early works that introduced a slight ambiguity into the equation: why stack immaculate vacuum-cleaners in well-lit Plexiglas cases, for example, or submerge brand-new basketballs in water-filled glass tanks? Also foreign to art-world taste were subsequent series that refashioned tokens of suburban leisure, such as bar accessories, in stainless steel, and figurines of small-town hominess, such as cute pets and farmyard animals, in polychrome wood. With objects in stainless steel and porcelain ranging from a bust of Louis XIV to a statuette of Bob Hope, from the folk figure of Kiepenkerl (a traveling pedlar in medieval Germany) to the pop figure of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles, Koons showed a canny sense of the capacious nature of kitsch. But the social unease produced by a conscious display of bad taste was not at all the point for Koons, who, in Warholian fashion, insisted on the sincerity of his message. ‘I don’t see a Hummel figurine as tasteless,’ he would say. ‘I see it as beautiful. I see it and respond to the sentimentality in the work.’ If the avant-garde was once defined in its opposition to kitsch, then its embrace might still carry a modicum of surprise, but there is little vanguard challenge here. Just the opposite in fact: ‘I have always tried to create work which does not alienate any part of my audience,’ Koons states. ‘Through my work, I tell people to embrace their past, to embrace who they are.’ This past, this identity, is constituted by the symbols of ‘mass cultural history,’ according to Koons, and we are encouraged to deem it ‘perfect just the way it was.’

Most pertinent here is his ‘Celebration’ series (1994-2006), which includes twenty large sculptures of balloon figures, Valentine hearts, diamond rings, and cracked-open eggs, cast in high-chromium stainless steel, coated with transparent color, and polished to a brilliant shine in a manner evocative of luxury-gift packaging. The series did not begin well, with production difficulties leading to cost over-runs that pushed Koons to the point of bankruptcy. Yet when his auction prices rose sharply, one of his dealers, Jeffrey Deitch, was able to assemble a consortium of gallerists and patrons to buy some of the pieces in advance, sight unseen. (It turned out to be a smart investment: in 2007 one such work, Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), sold at Sotheby’s for $23.6 million.) What makes these objects so attractive to patron and public alike? Consider Balloon Dog (1996-2000), which comes in luscious yellow, orange, or red: it offers the frisson of a small, fragile, and ephemeral toy made monumental, hard, and permanent, produced at a great cost and sold at an even greater price; it also presents a seductive mix of populism of image and exclusivity of ownership. For some commentators this formula makes a Koons sculpture the ideal public art, and his advocates speak of ‘a panorama of society’ addressed in his work. Yet the critic Peter Schjeldahl captures what this ‘panorama’ consists in: Koons ‘apostrophizes our present era of plutocratic democracy, sinking scads of money in a gesture of solidarity with lower-class taste.’ Appropriately, his recent production is currently on view at Versailles.

If anything, Murakami exploits the convergence of art, media, and market more thoroughly than does Koons. If Koons operates with smart selections from the repertoire of Western kitsch, Murakami works through figures of his own branding inspired by the Japanese subcultures of otaku (often translated as ‘geek’) and kawaii (‘cuteness’). Otaku fans tend to be male adolescents obsessed with particular characters in manga (comic books) and anime (television programs and films), some of whom are action figures to identify with and others submissive girls to fantasize about. An early attempt by Murakami in the otaku vein was Miss Ko 2 (1997), a combination of a pixie blonde girl with her hair in a ribbon and a buxom porn star in a skimpy waitress costume. Miss Ko 2 was not a hit among otaku fans—apparently she did not appear submissive enough—but Murakami has proved more successful with motifs that play on the female-oriented subculture of kawaii, such as his zesty mushrooms, smiley flowers, toddlers called ‘Kaikai’ and ‘Kiki’ (his corporation is titled in their honor), and, above all, ‘Mr DOB’. Named after a manga character, DOB resembles a Mickey Mouse whose head (that is all he is) spells out his moniker (D and B appear on his ears, and his face is an O). Toothy and sinister in his first incarnation, DOB was quickly refashioned as infantile and cute; as it happens, Mickey evolved in similar fashion, and someday the branding of DOB might rival that of the original Disney star.

Although Japan does not hold to the separation between high and low culture that once marked the modern West, Murakami still spans socioeconomic registers in a way that might be unprecedented. His bright mutants like DOB appear both in the costliest paintings and sculptures and in the cheapest merchandise (stickers, buttons, key chains, dolls, etc.); they can be found in major museums as well as in convenience stores. The graffiti artist Keith Haring had some of this market range; his signature figures of ‘the radiant baby’ and ‘the barking dog’ also extended from T-shirts to art work. Yet his ‘Pop Shop’ was a small store compared to the Murakami corporation, which offers no less than eighteen services, including advertising, packaging, animation, exhibition development, and website production. With his helpers Murakami also manages the careers of seven young Japanese artists, runs an art fair, hosts a radio show, writes a newspaper column, serves as a brand consultant for a television station as well as for the real-estate tycoon Minoru Mori, and anticipates the production of his own animated films. His biggest splash in the West came in 2002 when Marc Jacobs commissioned Murakami to design a version of the Louis Vuitton monogram; the sale of handbags with the rebranded symbol, which also include his jellyfish eye and cherry blossom motifs, exceeded $300 million in their first year of production. That Murakami considers such activity fully in line with his art practice is made clear by the presence of a Vuitton boutique smack in the middle of his current retrospective–another sale space among the others.

Arguably with Warhol there was still a moment of disruption in this confusion of positions and values—of artistic and commercial, high and low, rare and mass, expensive and cheap, and so on. There is little tension, and not much insight, now that these pairs have imploded—just a giddy delight, a weary despair, or a manic-depressive cocktail of the two. ‘Anytime we do the honest thing,’ Murakami has said in an instructive turn of language, ‘we get the win. People find it very difficult to find their honest desire. Andy Warhol did that.’ Yet beyond the apparent straight talk of Murakami or the quasi-medicated cheeriness of Koons one can sometimes catch a sinister and/or perverse note (as indeed exists in Warhol). However innocent at first glance, Balloon Dog also intimates a polymorphous sexuality, with the bulbous parts of the poodle morphing into weaponized breast or penis, and the initial DOB betrays more than a trace of the sadomasochistic nastiness sometimes sensed in Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. Walter Benjamin once speculated that the early Disney films were so popular because ‘the public recognizes its own life’ in the trials that Mickey and Donald are made to endure, and that their primary lesson is to teach us how ‘to survive [a] civilization’ become barbaric. There is an element of this odd appeal in the cute degradation that Koons and Murakami figures also embody. Certainly Murakami understands the infantile aspects of otaku and kawaii subcultures in a related way, referring them to the traumatic effects of nuclear holocaust and postwar subjection in Japan.

This dark side is perhaps clearest in the work of Hirst, who, with his courting of controversy, is the champion of converting public attention into financial reward. Yet even before Hirst floated his first shark in a tank of formaldehyde or left his first cow’s head to rot in a vitrine, he saw that ‘being sensational isn’t sensational anymore,’ that anaesthesia was the flip side of shock, and that deadness was his true theme. In this respect his piéce de résistance came in 2007 when Hirst exhibited a human skull cast in platinum and studded with 8,601 diamonds. Many interpreted this pirate treasure cum crown jewel as a vanitas, but, if this is so, it is a very glamorous one and a jackpot to boot: it came into the world valued at $100 million, and rumor has it that Hirst was part of the consortium that bought it.

Deep into the Depression of the 1930s, Benjamin speculated that the antisocial behavior of a Baudelaire might not be as subversive as some of us like to think, and with an eye to the embittered realisms and bankrupt surrealisms of his time he remarked: ‘It was left to the bourgeoisie of the twentieth century to incorporate nihilism into its apparatus of domination.’ To reflect on this nihilism, but also to update it and to further it, is the ambiguous achievement of the Warholian line of Koons, Murakami, and Hirst.


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