Hirst under hammer

‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ at Sotheby’s

Andy Warhol is looking quite the visionary lately with his personal views falling neatly in line with current events. His famed mantra, ‘art is what you can get away with’, can perhaps be no better exemplified than by the tremendous success of Damien Hirst’s groundbreaking auction at Sotheby’s this month; and it would not be entirely wrong to draw a direct parallel between Warhol and Hirst, either. With a title suggesting the indelible impact it may have on the art world, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever encapsulates a collection of 223 lots of sketches, paintings and sculptures up for grabs, as well as four items being sold for charity. The new works include Hirst’s trademark animals preserved in formaldehyde, medicine cabinets reminiscent of Duchamp, signature spin/spot paintings, and pieces detailed in gold, diamonds, dead butterflies and cigarette butts. With the star of the show (‘The Golden Calf’ crowned by a solid 18-carat gold disc) standing biblically alongside pillars in the auction rooms of the 234 year-old institution in London’s West End, Hirst’s mini-retrospective demonstrates a feat worth every thousand visitors and million pounds invested during the two-day sale.

Having decided to forego the convention of art-selling via the gallery/dealer middle-men, it was announced back in June that a collection by Hirst would be sold off to the highest bidders in what was estimated then to be a total sum of £65 million (with the gold-hoofed Calf fetching between £8m and £12m alone).  Though perhaps not surprising figures considering his diamond-encrusted human skull went for a whopping £50m last summer (purchased by an investment group, with Hirst and the White Cube gallery retaining partial ownership), this particular auction taking place implies a fundamental change in the rules of the art world. Described by Hirst as being more of a ‘risk’ and ‘challenge’ than selling via the galleries, this is in fact the first time that a living artist of such calibre has skipped over the hefty commissions and sellers’ fees and put work directly into the public marketplace. This leap of faith has obviously worked to Hirst’s favour, with all 56 lots selling on the first day and raising £70.5m, exceeding both individual and total sale estimates, and beating his previous sizable record of £10.3m.

Now what is it exactly about this sale that promises to rattle the very foundation of the art world as we know it? It all comes down to circumventing conventional procedure in a shift of power never seen before. Ordinarily, new art is sold by dealers in galleries after it has technically become ‘old’, i.e. being put on show several times in the rooms of esteemed establishments, thus stirring enough gossip to raise prestige and price. Only after this is work resold for a profit, and much of that money goes to the aforementioned middle-men. But with the contemporary art market booming today in spite of the credit crunch and other economic woes, dealers have been pushing for more immediacy in the studio-to-sale-room process. What Hirst has done is taken full control of the art-for-profit life-cycle, now proving that dealers are not needed if an artist has enough clout to become the dealer/seller himself. ‘What I find unfair is the Van Gogh thing’, states Hirst when asked about his sales ‘experiment’. ‘The artist doesn’t make any money, but everyone else does.’ And everything in this sale has been made in the past two years specifically for this milestone of an opportunity to change that. ‘Who says you have to do it this way and not some other way?’ he posits.

New Bond Street, London – 8th September, 2008

For further comparison to Warhol, one needs not look further than Hirst’s six studios and company, Science Ltd., running between London, Devon and Gloucestershire where his massive creative operation takes place. With the help of his assistants in a set-up not dissimilar to The Factory, it is easier to understand how the wonder of 200 plus pieces came into being — though Hirst himself takes lead as artist in the conception of all ideas. Even so, not only is this monumental selection at Sotheby’s the largest exhibition the auction house has ever seen put up for sale, it is quite frankly the largest show that Hirst has ever exhibited. Making him the biggest dollar-earner in the history of art, it truly follows suit with the YBA ethic of seeking to challenge the boundaries between art and materialism, though not in the cynical manner that was often seen in the past. And as Hirst achieved his career-launching status at the Freeze exhibition back in 1988, this auction just happens to coincide with its 20th anniversary. That said, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever is as personal an achievement as it is one for every artist out there trying to climb the ranks and earn a living.

It’s funny to think think that there was once a time when Damien Hirst was turned down on his first-time applications to both Leeds College of Art and Design, and Goldsmiths, University of London. There was also a time when Hirst spent a work placement at a mortuary, arguably an experience that helped shape part of the foundation for the death-themed pieces that are fetching millions today. Or later on, when it was Charles Saatchi who commissioned Hirst’s creations, only to then be bought back by Hirst himself via Jay Jopling for a total exceeding £8m. And let’s not forget those New York public health officials who banned showing ‘Two Fucking and Two Watching’ in fear of visitors vomiting in public, who are now possibly reeling from the notion of missed opportunity… As Warhol once said, art is what you can get away with —  not only has Hirst proven that, but he has also accomplished without hesitation what many artists can only dream about at the age of fourty-three without having died or cut off an ear to reach such standing. I think the title of his autobiography says it best: I Want To Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now.

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

Update 20.9.08: Hirst set a new record for a single artist’s sale at £111m.

See also: Sotheby’s

Damien Hirst (White Cube)


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