Despite ample opportunities to see it in a theatre, I only recently finally sat my ass down to commit to watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is odd considering it’s a movie handcrafted for my sensibilities. I won’t go on about how good the movie is, there’s enough of that out there, though I will caution that if you’re not already a fan of street art, you’ll likely find the first half the movie a little dull. If you’re like me, and lost your shit over the 1.5 seconds of KAWS putting up one of his bus ads circa late-90s, it’s essential for your library.
After it was over, I immediately grabbed a copy of Don Thompson’s ‘The $12-Million Stuffed Shark,’ a book dedicated to the very practices ‘Gift Shop’ lampoons. The book gets its title from Damien Hirst’s 1992 work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a 12’x17′ glass tank containing a dead tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde. The piece was commissioned by superstar collector Charles Saatchi and sold for anywhere from eight to twelve million dollars. Thompson’s book, a first of its kind, investigates what drives those sorts of prices and exposes the cogs and gears that go into the contemporary art machine. It’s not a pretty picture.
According to Thompson’s book, the tastes of the contemporary art world are really set by a handful of powerful gallerists, collectors and auction houses, often working in tandem to maximize their own profits. Artistic merit, already a subjective concept to begin with, gets even more subjective when you realize that many superstar artists at home and abroad achieve their success only after being ordained as relevant by people like Saatchi, Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery. Thompson reminds the reader that even Andy Warhol’s work wasn’t drawing seven-figure sales figures until Saatchi started quietly buying up the work not long before Warhol’s death.
Perhaps the most surprising trend of modern art, and the one aspect of ‘Gift Shop’ I found most troubling, is the growing frequency of artists acting as creative directors, using a team of technicians to bring their ideas into the world. In the case of Hirst’s famous shark, Hirst neither caught the shark, prepared it, or built the tank to contain it. His greatest personal contribution to the project was the title, which to my mind is the only thing giving the piece any merit. If he’d called it Shark in Tank it’d be a morbid curiosity. But the title he selected hammerlocks the viewer into thinking about the work under Hirst’s terms; a genius manoeuvre, if a bullying one. Hirst, Warhol, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Mr.Brainwash, they’ve all used a team of techs to make their work. Even Banksy, the patron saint of authenticity and alternative art, probably uses a crew as well [I doubt he painted that elephant himself]. Other people make it, the artist signs it, they take the profit. Everything about this seems insane, but this is what’s driven the industry for decades, and will continue to for the forseeable future, something that makes Koons suing for copyright infringement of a balloon animal figure he likely never lifted a finger to construct even more laughable.
Ultimately, I didn’t finish reading Thompson’s book. He’s an economist first and foremost, so his writing’s a little flat, and he makes all his points in the first 75 pages and expands on them for the remaining 200; I didn’t need to listen to him repeat himself. But if there’s one thing that Thompson’s book did touch on, but didn’t explore enough, is what art means as symbol of status, and how the source of demand has rotated as the global economy has changed. Two hundred years ago, America had no art and a lot of money. Now, the wealthy in places like China and Russia are trying to play catch up, throwing money at whatever works will put them on the same cultural level as their American counterparts. Money is wealth, but art confers status, and that’s what these new millionaires want. They want entry into the fraternity of exclusivity, to secure their place in the higher echelons of wealth, the sort of wealth where it doesn’t matter how much you spent on it, because you’re the only one who has it. Ownership moves you from ‘rich’ to ‘Jeff Koons rich,’ or ‘Damien Hirst rich’ and if you’re ‘Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst rich,’ it doesn’t matter where, or perhaps more importantly, when you got your money.