Banksy’s Auto-Da-Fé Strips Bare The Contemporary Art Market

By now most of you are familiar with the destruction of a painting by Contemporary artist Banksy that occurred at Sotheby’s last week. For those who missed it, a work by the graffiti guru depicting one of his best known images self-destructed by being shredded shortly after it was sold to an unknown buyer for $1.4 million. Sotheby’s claims that it had no idea that the shredding was going to occur, so we will go with that unless and until any conclusive evidence shows otherwise.

There are many rumors and theories bouncing about in cyberspace about this occurrence. Speculation is rife that Banksy himself, or one of his minions, was in the audience, and pushed some sort of remote control button to start the shredder. Many have noted that the destroyed work was not the original, which was a piece of graffiti on a wall long since destroyed, and that this piece was merely a recent copy specifically created for its destruction on camera.

Whatever you want to believe about the event, British art historian Bendor Grosvenor sums up the whole thing very succinctly by saying that the “happening”, if you will, boils down to one word: money. The Contemporary Art world, and in this I include most of the art establishment, is besotted with money over quality, showiness over substance. Perhaps ironically, this is rather reminiscent of the contrived, pricey, cloyingly sentimental Victorian paintings of children playing with puppies or gazing vacantly at bouquets of flowers, which the newly rich amassed to fill their homes in the second half of the 19th century.

Intentionally or no, Banksy’s auto-da-fé of his own work has shone what for many ought to be a very disturbing light on today’s art world. From the business side of things, reasonable voices have been quietly noting for some time that there is a bubble in Contemporary Art prices. ArtTactic, which provides research data concerning the art market, notes that confidence in the strength of the Contemporary Art market has fallen 24% this year, even while sales of Contemporary Art continue to increase. That bubble has been inflated largely by the art press, art institutions, and art dealers, so that art collectors with extraordinary resources at their disposal are, in many cases, buying largely for investment value rather than out of artistic appreciation.

For a more specific example of how this works, take a look at the downward slide in prices achieved for works by Damien Hirst, one of the most famous Contemporary artists in the world. It’s true that artists go in and out of fashion all the time, but if you bought a Hirst at the top of the market about a decade ago, you’re going to be taking a serious bath if you try to sell it now. Hirst, who for the past two decades has consistently diversified his holdings by investing in property and commercial venues to supplement his already considerable income, recently closed several business ventures in the British coastal resort region of Devon, even though a recent sale of “The Veil Paintings”, new work by Hirst shown at Gagosian L.A., did quite well. Coincidence? Or a reaction to declining market value?

Tied into the inflation of prices for Contemporary Art, as Jane Kallir pointed out in her (excellent) opinion piece for the Art Newspaper yesterday, is the intellectual dearth of connoisseurship in the art market and in the art press that has accompanied the ascendance of Contemporary Art to the sine qua non of current art acquisition trends. “In the past few decades,” she writes, “academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to ‘great man’ narratives. Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.”

As a result, at present the worth of a particular piece lies not so much in its subject matter, or in the artistic skill used in creating it, but rather in the notoriety of the artist (see, e.g., the entire oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat.) The astronomical amounts of financial speculation involved in the Contemporary Art world, which has led to, inter alia, marketing materials being passed off as serious art criticism and scholarship, and the concomitant decline in art education for the general public, has poisoned the well for decades to come. I don’t see any short-term solution to the problem which Banksy has so succinctly demonstrated exists in the present art establishment, short of some sort of collective recognition of guilt and complicity resulting in a secular bonfire of the vanities.

Yet we need to be careful not to rub our hands too gleefully before such a flame. Not all Contemporary Art is terrible, and there are still highly-skilled, talented artists out there creating interesting work. Moreover, while much garbage was destroyed at the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history, instigated by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, many beautiful works of art were destroyed in that conflagration as well – including books by Boccaccio and Dante, and paintings by Botticelli and Fra Bartolomeo. Let’s not go down that road, again.

shred

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Thought-Pourri: Artists In Action Edition

With apologies for no post on Mardi Gras – the day itself was rather fat with things that needed my attention – we return today with a curated selection of stories from the art world, since you don’t have to fast or abstain today.

Damien Hirst: Creating Canvases

While I derided him and his work for a long time, unlike a number of others who shall not be named from the Saatchi stable of regrettable British art, I find that Damien Hirst is becoming more interesting as he ages. Perhaps best known for putting dead animals in display cases filled with formaldehyde, in more recent years Hirst has been moving in interesting directions, even as the art press seems to like the results less and less. As famous these days for his bombastic personal statements as for his art, Hirst seems to be developing a new outlook on life, whether due to his becoming a father, or accepting middle age, or simply realizing that the legacy of his art matters; many observers have commented that even his Instagram account has become, dare one say it, more introspective.

I began rethinking my views on Hirst’s work back in 2013 with his monumental – and stunningly pro-life – sculpture installation “The Miraculous Journey”, a series of 14 monumental bronzes of a human baby at all stages of development in the womb, created for the grounds of a hospital in Doha. Then there was his fascinating but critically-panned “The Wreck of the Unbelievable” at last year’s Venice Biennale, centered around an entirely made-up story of finds from a shipwreck, which supposedly contained works of art from all over the ancient world. His latest exhibition, “The Veil Paintings”, which opens at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles on March 1st, features large, beautifully colored canvases inspired in part by the Pointillist period of Post-Impressionism, and also by the later Abstract Expressionist movement, albeit in a more cheerful, sunny way than the latter. Hirst being Hirst, he still creates works in the kind of bad taste that made him infamous, but alongside these more pedestrian pieces there seems to be a new seriousness in his work which, quite frankly, would serve his legacy far better.

Hirst

Antonio Banderas: Playing Picasso

Being perhaps the second most famous person to hail from the Spanish city of Málaga, it was probably inevitable that, at some point in his life, actor Antonio Banderas would be asked to play that city’s most famous native son, artist Pablo Picasso. Now, Banderas will be portraying his fellow Andalusian in not one, but two upcoming productions. For American audiences, Banderas will be seen as the older Picasso in season 2 of Director Ron Howard’s “Genius” on the National Geographic Channel, which begins airing on April 24th; you can check out the trailer here. International audiences will be awaiting the long-delayed “Picasso y Guernica” by Spain’s greatest living film director, Carlos Saura, which focuses on the creation of the most famous painting of the 20th century, and the rocky relationship between the artist and his then-muse, Dora Maar, who photographed Picasso’s work on the monumental canvas as it developed. No confirmation yet on who will be playing Maar, or Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was Picasso’s mistress at the time he began work on Guernica (and whom he left for Maar), but current rumors are that Marion Cotillard will be playing the former and Gwyneth Paltrow will be playing the latter. (Readers may not be aware that Paltrow is not only fluent in proper Castilian Spanish, but owns a home there; in fact, a colleague of mine ran into her on a plane to Barcelona not too long ago.)

Banderas

Leonardo Da Vinci: Discovering Drawings

With the buildup to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death next year, you’ll be seeing all kinds of exhibitions related to the Florentine artist opening around the globe; the latest to be announced is “Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing”, featuring works from the British Royal Collection. What is particularly interesting, from a technology perspective, is that in preparation for the show, a number of these drawings have been examined using methods such as infared light and high-energy x-rays to reveal previously unseen sketches from the master. The studies of hands shown below, for example, were photographed under ultraviolet light, to reveal drawings that can no longer be seen with the naked eye, because of the fading of the materials with which they were created. Much as I don’t personally care for Leonardo’s work, his hands really are a thing of beauty, and perhaps no artist other than Raphael ever paid such close attention to the careful study of the possibilities afforded for gestures in the human hand.

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​Old-Fashioned Wonder: Damien Hirst And “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”

If you’ve not yet seen images from British artist Damien Hirst’s colossal installation at the Palazzo Grassi, “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”, timed to coincide with this year’s Venice Biennale, you may be surprised to see what he has been working on for the last several years. The show has divided the art press, with comparisons to the Titanic in size and luxury, as well as in the sense of a massive failure at sea. Yet the elements of storytelling, craftsmanship, and sheer spectacle in an historic and mythological vein which have gone into Hirst’s latest effort make it one of the few installations of contemporary art that I can recall which appears interesting enough to actually warrant seeing, should you happen to find yourself in Venice between now and the end of the year.

“The Wreck of the Unbelievable”, is a combination of sculpture, film, and other elements, which purports to tell the story of a shipwreck from long ago, in which the property of an art collector from the ancient world went down into the deep for centuries. The fact that some of these pieces represent elements from more recent popular culture, like Mickey Mouse, while others juxtapose figures from different mythologies, such as a Hindu deity fighting a monster from Ancient Greece, indicate otherwise. The combination of cultures, materials, and styles, all tied together by the fiction of their underwater discovery, allows the viewer to think about interesting combinations of times, periods, and myths from old and new civilizations.

The Art Newspaper, in giving an overview, characterized this installation fairly well in stating: “This is what art looks like when unbridled ambition meets apparently limitless financial resources.” The end result of this meeting is absolutely massive, and there is no more massive element than the 60-feet-tall headless “Demon With Bowl” statue that fills the atrium of the museum where the show is housed through December of this year. Reports are that a majority of the works have already been sold, meaning that Mr. Hirst, who invested a significant portion of his own money in the show, and his backers will have gambled and won.

One of those backers is François Pinault, who owns the palace where the show is currently installed. M. Pinault is a long-time collector and supporter of Hirst’s work; he also happens to be Salma Hayek’s father-in-law, for those of you who follow such things. As the owner of numerous high-profile companies, including Christie’s auction house and the Gucci fashion label, he has the wherewithal to help make this rather intimidating spectacle happen. At the same time, he has been able to draw in the support of his friends and peers at the real one percent end of the scale, many of whom are no doubt going to want some of these pieces for their own collections.

Perhaps it was not difficult to predict that Hirst, who has moved away from the dot paintings and dead animals in formaldehyde which originally made him (in)famous, had planning something big for the last few years – and I mean really, REALLY big. He has become increasingly interested in monumental sculpture, and regular readers will recall my surprise at his (perhaps unintentionally) pro-life installation in Doha, which consists of gigantic bronze sculptures of a child in the womb. I was struck at the time by his comments about the journey from conception to birth, something which he came to appreciate when he became a father.

While for logistical reasons I won’t be seeing this new show, the implications of both the Doha installation and this latest exhibition leave me a bit worried. This is now the second time in the last few years that I’ve found myself liking an artist who, when I was living in London back in the 1990’s, I could not stand. Now I find myself in the position of defending Hirst against the hypocrisy of the art press, who level the same sort of criticism at him that they refuse to level at twisted, untalented hacks such as Grayson Perry or Ai WeiWei.

I will never see the merit of putting a dead shark in a box, but I do see the merit in Hirst’s more recent work, because in its way it is surprisingly rather old-fashioned. My armchair take on this latest show is that Hirst is exploring mythology through spectacle, but in a way that a contemporary audience can understand and appreciate. In doing so, he is following a very traditional path, that was for many centuries a part of Western art history.

Whether you were a Medici throwing a banquet in 16th century Florence, or a Vanderbilt throwing a New Year’s Party in late 19th century Newport, when you wanted to put on a show, you wanted your guests to relish not only your wealth and taste, but also your appreciation of the past. Thus, artists and artisans working for tastemakers from the ancients up through comparatively recent times created images of gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, from long-vanished civilizations to decorate palaces, entertain people on stage, and so forth. They imagined these figures in songs and in poetry, in cakes and desserts and in enthralling stories. Elaborate tableaux, with costumes, architecture, and so on, created by some of the most famous painters and sculptors in history, were put together for the entertainment and the education of the elite and their guests.

In a way, I see Hirst and Pinault doing something similar. In inviting guests into his palace, Pinault is providing the same opportunity for wonder that one of the Sforzas would have provided visitors in Milan wanting to see some new curiosity from the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci. By no means is Hirst, of course, a genius of the level of Leonardo. But given how interesting and engaging this show is, he has created something which, at least in some respects, an artist like Da Vinci would have recognized. And that’s good enough for me.

“Demon With Bowl” in the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi