Art and the Crisis of Capitalism - A Review of “The Mona Lisa Curse”

In his The Mona Lisa Curse, the Australian art critic Robert Hughes subjected present-day commercialisation of art to a withering criticism. His programme was a damning indictment of the general tendency of art to degenerate into flashy triviality to the degree that it subordinates itself to money-making and capitalist market economics. It condemned the British artist Hirst for "functioning like a commercial brand" and destroying any true understanding of art in the public's mind by placing importance on the price tag alone.

On September 16 at Sotheby's a sale of 223 new works by the British artist Damien Hirst fetched a total of £111.5million - a record for an auction dedicated to one artist. Before this sale (which Hirst called Beautiful Inside My Head Forever) the world record for a sale dedicated to a single artist was set in 1993 for works by Picasso.

Advertising of Damien Hirst auction, showing a picture of The Golden Calf

What Hirst lacks as an artist, he more than compensates for by his business acumen. He chose to bypass his dealers Larry Gagosian in New York and Jay Jopling of the White Cube in London, taking his work straight to auction. This would give him a higher rate of profit - if he succeeded in getting people to buy! Before the sale, however, Hirst admitted that he has suffered a recurring nightmare in recent weeks: the auctioneer declares that the bidding is underway but nobody raises their hand to bid. "The galleries have convinced everyone not to bid," says Hirst, explaining the dream. "It's risky I know. But it's too late to worry about it now."

The artist's nightmare was solidly grounded - not in art but in the current financial climate. The auction took place on the same day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and shares around the world crashed. Would the hedge-funders and other wealthy collectors who love to buy Hirst's work feel confident enough to bid? The artist's anxiety was reflected in the effort he has put into marketing. Before the private view at Sotheby's, he invited potential bidders to his Gloucestershire studios, including the fashion designer Miuccia Prada, the Ukranian businessman Victor Pinchuk and Christie's owner, Francois Pinault

Damien Hirst held a private view for a glittering crowd at Sotheby's, London at the weekend ahead of the big auction. Multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich was there to represent the Russian business Mafia, as well as a selection of London's "beautiful people". There were naturally a number of "celebrities" (that is, people who are famous for being famous), such as Dasha Zhukova who I had never heard of. Also present was Old Vic director Kevin Spacey, just to prove that this was not only about money, but there was a link (however tenuous) to the world of Kulture.

The sale went well. Star of the auction was The Golden Calf - a bull in a tank of formaldehyde, with its head crowned by a gold disc - which sold for £10.3m, a record for the artist at auction, though well short of the top £12m estimate. The Kingdom - a tiger shark also in formaldehyde - sold for £9.6m, well above the pre-sale top estimate of £6m. Fragments of Paradise, a wall case filled with shelves of thousands of "manufactured diamonds", attracted one of the longest bidding battles before selling for £5.2m, more than three times the top estimate. Damien need not have worried.

The Mona Lisa Curse

In a programme on Channel 4 called The Mona Lisa Curse, which was broadcast on 21st September the Australian art critic Robert Hughes subjected this kind of commercialisation of art to a withering criticism. Hughes, 70, is a respected figure in the art world. For many years he was art critic of Time magazine. His acclaimed book The Shock of the New published in 1980 made the theories behind modernism in art accessible to a wide audience.

This programme was a damning indictment, not only of Hirst's work, but of the general tendency of art to degenerate into flashy triviality to the degree that it subordinates itself to money-making and capitalist market economics. It condemned the British artist for "functioning like a commercial brand" and destroying any true understanding of art in the public's mind by placing importance on the price tag alone.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, by Damien Hirst

In the course of his blistering polemic Hughes described the artist's most famous work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (a shark pickled in formaldehyde) as "the world's most over-rated marine organism", adding: "It is a clever piece of marketing, but as a piece of art it is absurd." He is quite right, of course. The shark in question was sold for £8m in 2004.This is an excellent example of the prostitution of art, which is being smothered in the embrace of the wealthy speculators and art dealers, in collaboration with the owners of the big art galleries. Hughes showed how today's mercenary art market has made the price of a work of art more significant than its meaning.

 "The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst's work that shoves it into the multimillion pound realm is ludicrous," he said. "[The price] has to do with promotion and publicity and not with the quality of the works themselves." He added: "Hirst is basically a pirate, and his skill is shown by the way in which he has managed to bluff so many art-related people, from museum personnel such as Tate's Nicholas Serota to billionaires in the New York real-estate trade, into giving credence to his originality and the importance of his 'ideas'."

In The Mona Lisa Curse, Hughes traced the pernicious rise of the commercial art market back to 1963, when Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait was exhibited in New York. The Mona Lisa, says Hughes, was treated "as thought it were a film star. People came not to look at it, but to say that they'd seen it." This marked a turning point in the destiny of modern art. The "feeding frenzy" aroused in the herd of philistines by a single painting marked the start of a process by which works of art became celebrities in their own right. From the 1960s onwards, as Hughes points out, voracious collectors started buying works of art not because they liked them, but because they expected a handsome financial return from their purchase. Art ceased being an object of creativity and became a mere commodity.

Art as a commodity

Hughes points out that art is the biggest unregulated market in the world - apart from drugs (until very recently we might have added banks). Contemporary art sales now raise something in the order of £10 billion a year. The reason why modern art is so expensive to buy, says Hughes, is not because it is good, but because investors believe it will yield quick profits: "The commercial art market places too much emphasis upon novelty and trendiness because buyers expect that new work will get more valuable in the short-term."

Of course the net worth of a work of art- unlike that of a coal mine or a car factory - cannot be subjected to objective scrutiny. So artists like Hirst, who attract controversy or are experts in self-promotion are able to inflate the price of their work. All that is needed is some skill in the art, not of painting or sculpture, but in the art of marketing and PR. This then creates its own dynamic. Collectors who have already invested in these artists are naturally anxious to play along with this little game, just like the obsequious courtiers who praised the king's dress sense in Hans Christian-Andersen's tale The Emperor's New Clothes:

"The market is manipulated by collectors who decide to bid up the work of an artist [they've already invested in]," he says. "So when artist X comes up on the auction block, the collectors all bid it up, so that they can then multiply the value of their existing holdings in artist X by the value of the inflated sale."

The uncontrolled surge in art prices has made a few people very rich. But it has two very destructive consequences. First, art becomes a commodity, just like any other. It is an object - to be possessed, rather than something to be appreciated for its own sake. This inevitably degrades art and robs it of its special quality, its magical power.

Secondly, it enormously increases the alienation of art from the public. The only places ordinary people can experience celebrated works of art at first-hand are museums and public galleries. But these are now priced out of the auction room. Instead of being available to the majority, great works of art are locked away in the vaults of some wealthy speculator:

"Instead of being the common property of humankind the way a book is, art becomes the particular property of somebody who can afford it," Hughes says. "And when you have some Russian squillionaire who started buying art three minutes ago but has the GNP of Georgia in his pocket, how can museums compete? They can't - which causes great social harm. Suppose that every worthwhile book in the world cost $1million ¬- imagine what a catastrophic effect on culture that would have."

On the same day that the world's financial markets plummeted in panic, Damien Hirst's works were selling for record sums. The capitalists, having burnt their fingers in the collapse of the housing bubble, are now looking round for new fields for speculation: oil, food, commodities. So why not add artificially preserved farm animals to the list?

"One of the things that sustains the art market" says Hughes, "is an irrational faith in a continuous rise in prices". "There was a 17th-century Italian painter called Guido Reni. Not a lot of people have heard of him but in the late 18th century many connoisseurs thought that Italy's two supreme artists were Michelangelo and Reni. But by 1950 you could buy a 10-foot painting by Reni for £300. People fall out of fashion quite rapidly. So this idea of the inviolability of the modern art market is a fantasy."

The vast amounts of money spent on works of art are a reflection of the parasitic nature of modern capitalism and its spiritual emptiness. In the documentary, Hughes pointed out that the huge sums now regularly paid out by collectors at auctions, placing the lots out of the reach of public galleries, mean that art itself has been redefined. The works, he suggests, are now like film stars.

Crooks and charlatans

Robert Hughes did a service to art by exposing the fraudulent activities of people like Hirst. Nor is not in his negative opinion of the High Priest of "Britart". A New York Times editorial passed the following judgement: "Mr Hirst... has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst's art. No artist has managed the escalation of prices for his own work quite as brilliantly as Mr Hirst. That is the real concept in his conceptualism."

Grayson Perry, the Turner prize-winning potter, who has evidently not lost all his critical senses comments: "We get the art we deserve and Damien is the perfect artist of our times of fluff economies, New Labour and celebrity hype... His work has always been largely about money: I fear his accountant has become his most influential artistic adviser."

These comments are cruel but completely just. Nevertheless, Hughes caused great offence to the tribe of philistines who imagine they are very progressive when they tail end the latest fads. One of these creatures is Germaine Greer, who lost no time in attacking Hughes in the Guardian the day after the programme was broadcast. Yet, without meaning to, she merely underlined Hughe's criticism:

"His [Hirst's] undeniable genius [!] consists in getting people to buy them [yes, you read that right!]. Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative - revolutionary even." Ms Greer, the Patron Saint of petty bourgeois feminism, has never been a particularly coherent thinker. But here she descends into new depths of intellectual delirium. What is revolutionary about being able to sell trash to people with more money than sense? There were people doing such things even at the time of the pyramids, if not earlier. They were not revolutionaries but only crooks and charlatans then and they are crooks and charlatans today.

Ms. Greer confirms the opinion of Adrian Searle, the Guardian art critic who wrote: "Hirst's power, such as it is, lies in a reputation impermeable to criticism, having enough money to live and make art as he wishes, and an unaccountable ability to fill more column inches than any serious adult could sensibly want." Hastening to soothe the injured feelings of the artist, she complains that Hughes misses the point: "His dead cow [Hirst's Golden Calf] is a lineal descendant of the [biblical] Golden Calf."

Damien Hirst in front of The Golden CalfMore probably, it is a lineal descendant of the Goose that laid the golden egg, since it fetched £10.3m at Sotheby's recently. Or is it the "art-loving" bourgeois public and its intellectual hangers-on like Germine Greer that are the geese? The latter fall over themselves to purchase this stuff. But Mr. Hirst has been helped by other forces. The Sunday Times claims that the record-breaking prices were achieved largely because Hirst's two principal dealers, Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian, "propped up" the sale by buying large quantities of the work themselves and by bidding up many of the other lots. Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the Fine Art Fund, who was sat next to Jopling at the sale, said there was some "protectionism" and that he saw the dealer bid for a "lousy piece" which was likely to do badly.

It is just as well that not everybody is prepared to join the adulatory chorus surrounding Damien Hirst and his Sotheby's extravaganza. Robert Hughes is quite right to condemn the British artist for "functioning like a commercial brand". People like Hirst are an expression of the decay of modern culture under capitalism where the importance of an artist and his work is judged by the price tag alone.

"Banks fall over, art triumphs"

Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of contemporary art at Sotheby's, called the sale "a truly historic occasion". Since he benefited from Hirst's decision to bypass his dealers, collecting a cool 12 per cent buyer's premium on all sales, Mr. Westphal's enthusiasm for history can readily be understood. What is important here is not art as such, but art as a commodity. Damien Hirst's show was a success despite the economic crash that has ruined investors and now threatens to deprive millions of people of their jobs. Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy, who introduced Hirst's first pickled shark to a wider public in the 1997 Sensation show at the RA, put it very nicely when he said: "Banks fall over, art triumphs."

In a few words we have the essence of the bourgeois attitude to art in the phase of the senile decay of capitalism. In the first decade of the 21st century art has become trivialised, empty, vulgar and commercialised. In the best of cases, it is a source of entertainment for the idle rich. Most of the crowd filling Sotheby's were there not even to buy, but for entertainment. The star lots went either to telephone bidders or to wealthy buyers hiding away in Sotheby's private boardrooms.

The public does not even know who spent out millions on modern art on the day world financial markets were crashing. Hirst himself did not even bother to attend the auction - he was apparently playing snooker with Ronnie O'Sullivan in Camden Town. Nor did any of the smart crowd who attended his pre-sale party on Saturday. But Hirst said afterwards: "The market for art is bigger than anyone knows. I love art and this proves I am not alone."

No, of course, he is not alone! Charles Saatchi, advertising mogul and art collector, has written: "Art books dated 2105 will be as brutal about editing the late 20th century as they are about almost all other centuries. Every artist other than Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst will be a footnote." He is too kind. Once the capitalist system is abolished, and replaced by a rational system of society, where men and women are judged by their real talents and character, not by the size of their bank balances, the superficial pseudo artists, whiz kids and speculators like Warhol and Hirst will not even be a footnote.

What price art?

The credit crunch, falling house prices and bankrupt banks - does all this not affect the price of a work of art? Yes, it does! In a crisis, the capitalists look for a safe haven for their money. Normally this was gold and other precious metals. But recently they have realised that works of art can act as a useful substitute. Francis Bacon's Triptych and Claude Monet's Le bassin aux nymphéas both sold for record amounts this year. It seems art-lovers are still willing to pay enormous sums for their collections, not despite the crisis but because of it.

The art market has risen continuously in recent years. Let us cite just a few examples. Picasso's Boy with a pipe, was painted in 1905. Charles Moffet at Sotheby's said: "It has a haunting ambiguity that has ensured its status as one of Picasso's most celebrated images of adolescent beauty." Maybe so, but it was not so much adolescent beauty but profitability that determined the result. And there was no haunting ambiguity about that. It was sold at: Sotheby's New York, on May 2004 for a very unambiguous £51,845,245. Another painting by Picasso, Dora Maar au chat, was sold by the same establishment in 2006 for £46,028,050.

Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II was sold at Christie's New York, in November 2006 for £41,315,788. The Tryptych by Francis Bacon was sold by Sotheby's New York in May 2008 for £39,627,399. Bacon, who died in 1992 at 82, is generally considered one of Britain's most important 20th century artists. Unlike Damien Hirst, his reputation is justified. Whether this reputation justifies the price of almost £40 million is another matter.

Vincent van Gogh was undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of all time although we seem to recall that he died in utter poverty. His Portrait of Dr. Gachet was sold Christie's New York, May 1990 for £44,378,696. No doubt it would fetch a lot more now. Claude Monet's Le bassin aux nymphéas (yet more water lilies; but so well done!) was sold Christie's London, in June 2008 for £40,921,250. Pierre Auguste Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette went for £42,011,832 at Sotheby's New York, in May 1990.

The senile decay of capitalism

The list is endless. And what does it reveal? Does it perhaps indicate a fervent love of art for art's sake on the part of the bourgeoisie of the 21st century? Perhaps it is proof of a new artistic Renaissance, as in Florence in the 15th century, when the Medici used their fortune for the sponsorship of early and High Renaissance art and architecture? Medici money was significant because during this period, artists generally only made their works when they received commissions in advance.

Cosimo the Elder was notable artistic associates of Donatello and Fra Angelico. Michelangelo Buonarroti produced work for a number of Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, who also served as patron to the great Leonardo da Vinci for seven years. These Medici, whatever their human failings (which were many!) were undoubtedly men of culture who were seriously interested in art. Indeed Lorenzo was an artist in his own right, and wrote poetry and songs.

This was the first flush of the youth of the bourgeoisie, when it was playing a progressive role in developing the productive power of society and providing an impulse to the growth of culture, art and civilization.

What we se now has nothing in common with this. What we are witnessing is the slow, inglorious decline of capitalism, its period of senile decay, in which the bourgeois is no longer capable of playing a progressive role in any sphere.

The productive forces stagnate and decline, producing massive suffering, unemployment and poverty. Instead of investing in production, the bourgeoisie has given itself over to speculation and parasitism. The unprecedented rise in the cost of works of art is only an expression of this. Like a decrepit old man, the senility of the bourgeoisie manifests itself as a regression. It is that final stage of degeneration that precedes death, when the bourgeoisie finds itself, in the words of Shakespeare: "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

It is not, however, a return to the vigour of youth but only a regression to childishness. The most accurate historical comparison is not the bourgeoisies of the Renaissance or the Reformation, but to the primitive phase of capitalist accumulation in the Middle Ages. The true face of the bourgeoisie of the first decade of the 21st century closely resembles the repulsive physiognomy of the medieval miser, engaged in the act of hoarding.

Like the miser of old, the modern bourgeois locks away his treasures in dark vaults where they are safe from prying eyes. Here he can gloat over his accumulated possessions, not for their intrinsic value, but only as a mass of congealed social labour in the form of dead capital, infertile and incapable of begetting new value. The ideal of the modern bourgeois is to get money from money without indulging in the painful process of productive labour. The name of this ideal is speculation. Its aesthetic expression is the art market. 

Like a beautiful young mistress, locked away for the exclusive enjoyment of a wealthy old man, works of art are bought to be hidden in private collections, or, more likely, in the vaults of banks. Society is thus deprived of access to the marvellous heritage of the past. Works that ought to be the common property of humanity are monopolised by a tiny handful of super-rich parasites. Art itself becomes a symbol of parasitism; its content becomes meaningless and trivial and the artists themselves are reduced to the status of pampered prostitutes.

In order to change this state of affairs what is required is no less than a complete cultural revolution. But a cultural revolution cannot be achieved within the framework of the old society, in which the Market rules supreme and everything is subordinated to money and the profit motive. A cultural revolution is only possible as a result of a social revolution. Therefore, artists and all those genuinely interested in the future of art, music and culture, have a vested interest in revolution.

When men and women finally take their destinies into their own hands; when the private monopoly of the wealth of society is abolished and replaced by a socialist commonwealth, then and only then will we be destroy the monopoly of art, science and government by the privileged few. Only then will art become the common property of all. Once it is freed from the dictatorship of Capital, artists, writers and musicians will be able to create according to the dictates of their soul and not according to the sordid interests of money-grubbing and prostitution.

Art will cease to be something that most people see as alien and unnecessary. It will occupy its true place at the centre of social life: the creative expression of the finest aspirations of free men and women - the heart and soul of humanity.

London, 24th November, 2008