In his television documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, the pugnacious and persuasive art critic Robert Hughes argued that traditional values which judge art by its quality have been overridden by marketing and hype, and that, in the present consumer culture, the only meaning left for art is a financial one. Perhaps today, the millions who visit museums do so in order to contemplate art’s financial rather than aesthetic values.
The artists Hughes singled out as being worth so much more than they merited were Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. So will people go to Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern to mull over the millions of pounds his art represents? The critics are likely to see the selection, which emphasises his early work, as supporting the view that Hirst had made his best, most original work by the latter half of the 1990s, and everything after that was repetition. But then, even if it has been a bit of a production line, it has been a very successful one, and so in itself a comment on consumer culture.
Warhol also addressed consumer culture, was repetitive, and employed factory workers to make his art, just as Hirst has done. But the difference is that Hirst has enjoyed far more commercial success than Warhol ever did.
Hirst is often cited as the richest artist in the UK, even in the world. In 2009, the Sunday Times Rich List assessed his wealth at £235 million. That may have been an understatement. In 2008, his business manager, Frank Dunphy, said Hirst was “a dollar billionaire”. Dunphy, an accountant who had worked with the artist since the mid-Nineties, was clearly proud of his achievement, turning Hirst from a potential drunken layabout into a number-one bankable asset, and a lot of interesting facts came out.
Hirst employed 160 staff making artworks for him at five studios in England. He owned dozens of properties from Mayfair to Mexico, including the £3 million Toddington Manor, where he planned to put his art collection – then worth about $400 million (£252 million) – including a self-portrait by Francis Bacon which he had bought in 2007 for £16 million. There wasn’t a run-down of gallery sales but, occasionally, some figures would be revealed: Charles Saatchi buying the Humbrol toy sculpture, Hymn, for £1 million, a White Cube sell-out for £11 million, a multi-million sell-out in his first show in Mexico – added to which was the $20 million (£12 million) sale of the contents of the Pharmacy restaurant, and the £111 million pound Beautiful sale at Sotheby’s, which took place just before the West’s financial crash.
Adding to the earnings figures has been Other Criteria, Hirst’s retail outlet, which was netting $12 million (£7.5 million) a year on brand products like prints and T-shirts. Recently Hirst has announced his plans to build 500 eco homes in Devon – a money-spinner if it takes off – and the opening of a gallery in London to house his own collection.
The popular obsession with wealth and fame has ensured that Hirst’s name is ineradicably associated with something other than his art. The £50 million diamond-encrusted skull he made in 2007 tells us how wealth cannot buy immortality. The Sotheby’s sale in 2008 was a statement of the artist’s superiority over his dealers and, being more of the same but with added bling for the new rich collectors, a work of art in itself.
Both of these are featured in the Tate show – the skull in the Turbine Hall, and an installation from the Sotheby’s sale upstairs to support the “whole work of art” idea. But if they are about money, neither is quite complete.
The skull has never been sold properly, so doesn’t have a real value – only the price attached to it. And the effects of the Sotheby’s sale are still being played out, as works that were bought there (perhaps with the extended credit terms that were offered) resurface on the market, selling for half or two-thirds of the price they sold for initially.
This fits well with Hirst’s intentions to reverse the normal pattern of accruing value – to buy the new work from the artist or his dealer for, say, £1,000, wait for the value to go up, and then resell for £10,000 – excluding the artist from any profit.
Hirst objected to that process, saying he believed artists should make their work more expensive at the first point of sale. “The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most,” he said. It means treating a work of art like a new car or a piece of furniture, but it is the way an artist, who does not profit from auction resales, can make the most money.
If this is what happened at the Sotheby’s sale, with Hirst pocketing the lion’s share, it has been the buyers who have suffered a loss at the point of resale, not Hirst. Nor has Hirst been perturbed by the downturn in his auction prices. “What goes up must come down,” he says. “It’s like when John Lennon went to get his long hair cut and was asked why. 'What else can you do after you’ve grown it long?’ he answered.”
The Sotheby’s sale itself did little damage to his gallery relationships. He is now one of many successful artists (Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Anish Kapoor) who have become less dependent on their galleries and more reliant on business managers and have transformed themselves into self-contained corporations.
He has also demonstrated how little attention the market pays to the art critics. The exhibition of his own figurative paintings at the Wallace Collection and White Cube was slaughtered by the critics, yet collectors paid millions for them.
Hirst once admitted his ambitions, saying: “It’s been hard to see the art for the dollar signs.” A similar difficulty has faced the viewer, if not the investor. Whether he has been making art for money or about money, there is always the suspicion that he is fulfilling that early wish when he said: “I can’t wait to get into a position of making really bad art and get away with it.”