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 OK 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 was the master of Business Art – he established Andy Warhol Enterprises in 1957, and films, Interview magazine, books and TV programmes were to follow – but his operation was small beer by contemporary standards. Today, artists like Hirst set the bar for ‘good business’. On 15 and 16 September he bypassed his two major dealers (White Cube and Gagosian) and auctioned 223 pieces of new work directly at Sotheby’s. The sale beat its already sky-high estimates by a substantial margin, bringing a total of £111.5 million, ten times the old record for a single-artist auction, set by Picasso with 88 works in 1993.

During those same two days Wall Street melted down. 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 mortgage securities. The Dow Jones plunged five hundred points on 15 September, its worst day since 9/11, and nearly another five hundred two days later, even though the US government had bailed out the insurance giant AIG the day before in yet another act of socialised capitalism whereby gains are privatised and losses shared by all. (The government had bailed out Bear Stearns in March, and took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in early September; as I write, more massive infusions of taxpayers’ money into the financial system are on the way.)

The coincidence of the megasuccessful auction in London with the metafinancial disaster in New York is striking, and it makes a couple of things clear. First, while the markets burn the art world plays on, and London is now its undisputed capital. 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 £10.3 million, the top seller at Sotheby’s was The Golden Calf, a white bullock in formaldehyde, with crown, horns and hoofs made of 18-carat gold: dance on, idolaters! Yet how singular is the Hirst phenomenon, by which I mean not only the recent auction, but an entire career strung together by shock and scandal and a body of work whose medium is a compound of media and market events?

Production for the marketplace has been a fundamental condition of art since the Renaissance. However, the art market as we know it now is a far more recent thing, an effect of the growth of an international bourgeoisie that 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 recently put it in Artforum, ‘looked like products being sold like products’. The network of commercial galleries expanded greatly at that time, as did the influence of dealers and collectors. That contemporary art might be seen in the first instance as an investment was soon made evident by the rise of high-return auctions, the most infamous being the 1973 sale of the Robert and Ethel Scull collection, which centred on Pop. Enraged artists saw none of the profits (with Hirst, in this respect, there has been a complete turnabout).

After the recessionary 1970s, the anti-regulatory policies of Reagan and Thatcher promoted a new class of the super-rich, some of whom became very visible collectors. Naturally, they favoured market-proven painting and sculpture over more experimental and critical forms. Charles Saatchi, an early backer of Hirst, was alert not only to the new investment potential of contemporary art but also to the publicity value of its more notorious players. The art market fell dramatically in 1990, three years after the stock market crash of 1987 (art and financial markets might be connected, but they aren’t synchronised). Later in the decade, however, a fully neoliberal economy produced personal fortunes in excess of those of the 1980s, and what would, in Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase, be described as an ‘irrationally exuberant’ art market soon roared to life.

Saatchi, the standard-bearer of the 1980s boom, was an advertising executive; his counterpart in the latest upswing in the art market is a hedge-fund manager, Steven Cohen, who has used his enormous profits as founder of SAC Capital to build an extensive collection of postwar art in just a few 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, writing in Artforum, 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 market. 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 executives 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, South-East Asia and elsewhere. The intensity of the activity is also remarkable: the turnover at contemporary art auctions 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. 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 Pinault, 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 in any case, investment alone cannot fully explain its allure. ‘These buyers have a tremendous surplus of economic capital and an equally large deficit of social and cultural capital,’ Olav Velthuis, an expert on the art market, writes in the same issue of Artforum. ‘By buying contemporary art, they buy access to a social world.’ In this ac-count the motive of the new collectors remains the old one of prestige, position and ‘pleasure of participation’, as Crow puts 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. The desire for display, for instance, brings a demand for scale, indeed for spectacle, with dramatic effects on the cost 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: a tight system of grand patronage has returned, with the most coveted work often bespoken before it is produced and whisked away soon after. The public now sees contemporary art, more than ever before, as a private affair, regardless of its content or its mode of 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 privatising 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. It is hardly unique for a trustee of an institution to act in his own interest, but it tells of a situation in which many museum directors and curators behave as servants of a patron class first and custodians of collective patrimony second.

The commingling of much contemporary art with the media and the market has affected it in other ways as well. The critic Julian Stallabrass highlights the parallels with corporate mass culture in his book Art Incorporated (2004): ‘an emphasis on the image of youth, the prevalence of work that reproduces well on magazine pages, and the rise of the 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’. These connections are significant, but others are 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 in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), managerial discourse over the last two decades has promoted attitudes and attributes once associated with the artistic personality: ‘autonomy, spontaneity, rhizomorphous capacity, multi-tasking (in contrast to the narrow specialisation of the old division of labour), 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’ .

Just as managerial discourse has assimilated artistic qualities in this manner, so some artists have embraced business models with a rigour that puts Warhol to shame. Hirst multi-tasks 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 Gothic revival 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 ninety employees in Manhattan, while Murakami runs a corporation with seventy employees based in Tokyo and Queens. Work signed ‘Koons’ or ‘Murakami’ is largely designed on computers by assistants and then executed by fabricators. At times underscoring the collapse of the differences between museum art and mass culture, at other times reinscribing them to their own advantage, all three artists work in such a way as to make the market the medium of the art.

In the 1980s Koons played ambiguously on the convergence of art exhibition and commodity display: he stacked immaculate vacuum cleaners in well-lit Plexiglas cases, or submerged brand-new basketballs in water-filled glass tanks. In subsequent series, just as foreign to art-world taste, he refashioned tokens of suburban leisure (bar accessories, for example, in stainless steel), and figurines of small-town hominess – cute pets and farmyard animals – in polychrome wood. 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 travelling pedlar in medieval Germany) to Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles, showed a canny sense of the capaciousness of kitsch. But the social unease produced by a conscious display of bad taste wasn’t 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 of the work.’ The avant-garde once defined itself in opposition to kitsch, so its embrace of it might be expected to carry a modicum of surprise, but Koons didn’t intend to be part of a vanguard. On the contrary: ‘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’.

Koons’s ‘Celebration’ series (1994-2008), includes 20 large sculptures of balloon figures, Valentine hearts, diamond rings and cracked-open eggs, cast in high-chromium stainless steel, coated with transparent colour and polished to a brilliant shine in the manner of luxury gift packaging. At first, production difficulties led to cost over-runs that pushed Koons to the point of bankruptcy. But when his auction prices rose sharply, one of his dealers, Jeffrey Deitch, was able to assemble a consortium of gallery owners 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 (1994-2000), 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 great cost and sold at an even greater price; it also presents a seductive mix of populism, at the level of the image, and exclusivity of ownership. This, some critics say, makes a Koons sculpture the ideal public artwork; one of his advocates has spoken of the ‘panorama of society’ addressed in his work. Peter Schjeldahl captures what this ‘panorama’ consists in: Koons ‘apostrophises our present era of plutocratic democracy, sinking scads of money in a gesture of solidarity with lower-class taste’. His recent work is on view at Versailles (until 14 December).

Murakami exploits the convergence of art, media and market more thoroughly even than Koons. Where Koons operates with smart selections from the repertoire of Western kitsch, Murakami works with 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 programmes and films), some of which are action figures to identify with and others submissive girls to fantasise about. An early attempt by Murakami in the otaku vein was Miss ko2 (1997), a six-foot tall hybrid of a pixie blonde girl with her hair in a ribbon and a buxom porn star in a skimpy waitress outfit. Miss ko2 was not a hit among otaku fans – apparently she didn’t appear submissive enough – but Murakami has found more success with motifs that play on the female-oriented subculture of kawaii: zesty mushrooms, smiley flowers, toddlers called ‘Kaikai’ and ‘Kiki’ (his corporation is named after them), 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 name (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 a similar way.

Japan does not hold to the separation of high and low culture that once marked the modern West, but still, Murakami’s reach across socio-economic registers might be unprecedented. Bright mutants like DOB appear both in the costliest paintings and sculptures and in the cheapest merchandise (stickers, badges, key chains, dolls etc); they can be found in major museums as well as in convenience stores. Keith Haring’s signature figures of ‘the radiant baby’ and ‘the barking dog’ also extended from T-shirts to artworks. Yet his ‘Pop Shop’ was a small store compared to Kaikai Kiki Co Ltd, which offers no fewer than 18 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, acts as a brand consultant for a television station as well as for the real-estate tycoon Minoru Mori, and is planning to produce his own animated films. His biggest splash in the West came in 2002 when Marc Jacobs commissioned him to design a version of the Louis Vuitton monogram; sales of handbags with the rebranded symbol exceeded $300 million in their first year of production. That Murakami considers such activities 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.*

With Warhol, arguably, there was 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 Murakami’s apparent straight talk or Koons’s quasi-medicated cheeriness, one can sometimes catch a sinister or perverse note (it’s there in Warhol, too). However innocent it appears at first glance, Balloon Dog also intimates a polymorphous sexuality, with the bulbous parts of the poodle morphing into weaponised breasts or penises; and the initial DOB bears 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 recognises its own life’ in the trials Mickey and Donald are made to endure, and that their primary lesson is to teach us how to survive a civilisation become barbaric. There is an element of this odd appeal, too, in the cute degradation that Koons and Murakami figures embody. Certainly Murakami understands the infantile aspects of otaku and kawaii subcultures in this way: he has related 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, in 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 flipside of shock, and that deadness was his true theme. In this respect, he produced his pièce de résistance last year when he exhibited a human skull cast in platinum and studded with 8601 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, too: it came into the world valued at £50 million, and the rumour is that Hirst was part of the consortium that bought it.

‘It was left to the bourgeoisie of the 20th century to incorporate nihilism into its apparatus of domination,’ Benjamin remarked during the Depression of the 1930s, with an eye on the embittered realisms and bankrupt surrealisms of the time. To reflect on this nihilism, but also to have updated it and pushed it further, is the ambiguous achievement of the Warholian line of Koons, Murakami and Hirst.

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