The Perplexity of Contemporary Art 

We were chatting in the lounge of The Arts & Letters Club waiting for the dinner gong. Our keynote speaker of the evening was Don Thompson, author of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark and I was anticipating some clarity on my, ever increasing, perplexity in regard to the contemporary art market. I have been trying to understand it but the more I learn the less I know. I do not seem to be alone.  I was happy to see a friend there who has just returned from Europe. My friend is very worldly and you could even say,debonaire kind of man. We touched glasses and I asked if he was looking forward to the talk that evening. His response was like a shot and I paraphrase: “ I would not listen to that man – it is the very antithesis of what this club stands for!”


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

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

“But,” said I, “I thought he exposes the craziness of floating sharks as art.” (I have not yet read the book) I began to sense that I was not going to have the “aha” moment I was anticipating. We found our seats at the long trestle tables in the Great Hall, the same room where the famous photo of The Group of Seven was taken seated congenially at one of these very tables.  The film screen was lit and these words dominated the space: The value of a work of art is based on its provenance and its back story. “Oy vey,” I said to myself.

Group of Seven in the Great Hall at the Arts & Letters Club

Group of Seven in the Great Hall at the Arts & Letters Club

The toughest part to swallow of the talk was that what Don Thompson said is the truth. How we spend our money is a very clear indication of where our values lie – as individuals and as a culture. In fact the first slide that popped up in the talk was a lovely relaxed shot of George Clooney in a black sweater

What would you pay at auction for one of George Clooney’s sweaters?”, asked Mr. Thompson

What would you pay if it was stipulated that you couldn’t tell anyone it was George Clooney’s sweater?”

What would you pay if it had been dry cleaned?”

And on went the rhetorical questions until we were clear that the object of value is redundant.

So strong is the back story, Mr. Thompson opined, that when the first shark deteriorated, the artist, Hirst, replaced it – that is to say Damien Hirst’s technicians (168 on staff) procured another shark from Australia, stuffed and floated it. The replacement went on loan to the MOMA as the original. In this case, it is the concept that is the object – did I really say that?

Evidently, what made the stuffed shark art-esque was not the shark itself (object) but the title. In this case: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (concept).  This launched it into the vast catch bag description of contemporary art and placed Hirst resolutely into the firmament of stars of the contemporary art world.  Hirst continues to illicit an enormous amount of hue and cry over his various pieces. The formaldehyde series is so successful that it now includes a zebra, a cow and calf sawn in half, a lamb and others. He is the world’s richest living artist.

But this is no ‘one trick pony’, Hirst has produced other conceptual pieces ranging from diamond encrusted human skull “For the Love of God” (apparently what his mother said when he shared his idea), butterflies, a colourful sphincter painting and dots done by others.

"For the Love of God", Damien Hirst

"For the Love of God", Damien Hirst

Okay – Don Thompson is absolutely right about something else as well: Hirst is a brilliant, world class marketing genius. And he genuinely seems like a happy guy. In fact, in many photos I’ve seen of him he has this enigmatic smile – kinda like La Gioconda – The Mona Lisa. Hmmm what is he thinking?

 Damien Hirst - Mona Lisa Smile

Damien Hirst - Mona Lisa Smile

Here’s my postulation: Hirst and others in his class have happened onto the goldmine of the disassociated head from heart duality that underlies our culture. He has used shock – animals sawn in half;  banality – coloured dots, and ostentation – diamond encrusted human skull and called it art. Somebodies bought it as ‘art’ to the tune of millions and thereby sanctioned the description. Like it or not; want it in your living room or not; Hirst is in the history books as an artist of our time.

If success equals talent then Hirst is talented. If notoriety equals success then Hirst is successful. If money equals genius then Hirst is a genius. If novelty equals creativity then Hirst is creative. Now, if you’re following all this ‘logic’ and still can’t see how he can be the richest artist living in the world today, then here is the last question: If the leading authorities cluster and agree does that make it so?

For the very small percentage of collectors at the apex of the pyramid of the contemporary art market with disposable income in the millions, this is indeed true. The critics have agreed to agree and Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses bring their gavels down on that reality.  For the rest of us who look on with incredulity while the emperor is draped in imaginary finery and rich media coverage the question arises: Isn’t someone going to say this is a naked mockery of art and all it stands for?

Don Thompson confessed, he wrote The $12 Million Stuffed Shark to try to understand the ‘curious economics of contemporary art’ for himself. He revealed it – it is a branding machine. The question that arises for me is how does that branding frenzy filter down into the rest of the market? How do we invest in contemporary art with confidence when there are seemingly no rules or definitions?

Damien Hirst is a self declared conceptual artist. He presents a concept and it’s fulfilment in material and labour is beside the point. Concept is king and concept alone is strictly of the head. It is an intellectual abstraction with no connection to wholeness of being human – the heart and guts, inspiration, skill, perception or talent. Thoughts in themselves are random – bits from the depths of the psyche or from the shallows of the societal cacophony. Not all thoughts are worthy of expression. Not all thoughts are ennobling.

Ah, there now, I have revealed myself. I believe art to be expressions from our deepest human experience articulated in form. The form is intrinsic to the wholeness of the expression so that through the experience of bringing forth the expression, the artist refines the communique. An effective communication may be bold or subtle – a shout or a whisper, but its message will continue to reveal itself over time as it circumvents the censor of the intellect and penetrates the deeper recesses.  The relationship is more of knowing than thinking.

Art that is all idea is as incomplete as art that is all medium and no idea; or art that is all expression and no refinement. Subject, medium, composition, pattern, texture, colour, line, positive and negative space are all intrinsic to a well articulated point of view. Whether realism or abstract, sculpture or canvas, allegorical or surreal, the human being perceives on multiple levels and a successful work will satisfy all of these. And what is a successful work of art if success in not attached to the back story?

Mr. Thompson said that museums will not purchase a work of art until it has been in the public domain for forty years. Why? Because by then the hype and the trends of the time will have quietened and the piece will stand or fall on its own merit. Conversely, an artist may be misunderstood until human consciousness catches up with the artist’s vision.  Time, it seems, stimulates a deeper wisdom of the human condition.

" Starry Night", Vincent Van Gogh

" Starry Night", Vincent Van Gogh

The arts – music, dance, painting et al are creative expressions of humanity, each work is as an individual. And like people, values such as integrity, intelligence, consciousness, deep passion, self- knowledge and refinement in their relative balance and complexity reveal themselves over time and are the foundation of lasting relationships. Choose a work of art as you would a friend. After all, each is an investment in and of your self.

As to art as an investment? Nix says Don Thompson. “Buy a work because you love it”.