Morbid question one: if Damien Hirst fell into a vat of formaldehyde tomorrow, how would this affect the monetary value of his works? The ultimate art-businessman has, like most on Artlyst’s reel of richest artists, become so having found a brand-formula which happened to become recognised, sought-after, a sure-fire investment. Except the trouble with having no originality whatsoever is that in recent years Mr Hirst has found the market for his brand waning: a sizeable percentage of value has been knocked off the pieces, failing to sell at auction. Perhaps his grabbing greed has lost such of its novelty that it’s no longer infuriatingly amusing to see how Tate have bent over and let him flog his splattered skulls for only £35,000 in its shops: it’s just depressing. So, given a guaranteed way to pique interest in collectors and increase urgency in traders is to pop one’s clogs, here we are at morbid question number two: would the pickled Hirst in his brine be richer (!) in monetary value, or artistic irony, a final, and real, contribution to art?
Gerhard Richter was correct when he stated that the price tag is not necessarily proportionate to skill and artistic integrity (see also, Jack Vettriano..), and indeed the idea of art as brand has all but taken over current art practice. Van Gogh never sold within his lifetime, and Balzac famously parodied the archetypal tortured artist in ‘The Black Sheep’, 1842, as a gifted idealist hopelessly inadequate in all matters business. Now, we measure an artist’s success by the scales he reaches at auction – see recently Peter Doig welcomed to the fold – and it has become less about skill than a recognisable brand. Everyone on the list has a ‘look’; from Murakami to Gormley to Bacon, their work has evolved independently through a Darwinian mode of selection into a type that is repeatable, recognisable, and distinctive, with the skill existing alongside as a secondary factor. In short, an exercise in good branding, though their primary aim may not have been so baldly calculated (at the one end being Jasper Johns, the other Mr Koons).
And on that note, enjoy the Affordable Art Fair this week. You can kindle your own flickering flame for owning art by buying a print of puppies, or maybe a still life of lemons. Dare to fork out on a Hirst spot for the maximum AAF limit, and somewhere, some fuzzy haired rich bastard smiles softly to himself.
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