The Medium is the Market

Hal Foster

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.

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[*] The retrospective spent three months at La Moca, three months at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is now at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt and will be in Bilbao in the new year.