Contemporary art is popular but it’s all about money and power
Among the most expensive and (one would think) exclusive to purchase works are Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs. But there are so many! At the very top of the market, there are five monumental balloon dogs of different colors, each worth tens of millions of dollars, and bought by some of the world’s wealthiest collectors, including Steve Cohen, Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou and Francois Pinault. .
If your budget isn’t quite enough, there are smaller-scale but much larger editions, found in the hundreds for a layout around $30,000 or thousands for around $9,000. The general tactic of branded mega-artists is to cover a very wide range of markets, from buyers who own a private museum to those who will buy an unlimited edition of posters.
This mass production is closely related to investment and the financial modeling of art prices: a potential investor may be given an illusion of assured value if a similar piece has been sold recently at a certain price, then the serial works become popular. The unique work always has its place in the particular economy of the art world, of course, but its value is unpredictable. Even seemingly unique paintings by a particular artist may actually be part of a trademark series, sold on the performance of pieces of similar size and character. This explains much of the appeal of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings – and there are thousands of them.
As collectors become accustomed to buying conventionally and instrumentally, they usually assure anyone who asks that they only buy for the love of the work and never think of selling. And the meeting of the exceptional artist and the exceptional collector is often presented as a unique moment of symbiosis.
At the time of the 2017 Venice Biennale, Hirst staged a gigantic and grandiloquent exhibition of objects made in variants and series, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, at two important sites owned by Pinault. The exhibit claimed to be the salvage from a shipwreck, the collection of a legendary magnate from the ancient world known for his boundless greed, voracity and taste for domination.
Pinault himself exposes the meeting of artist and collector in the catalog, saying that ‘Treasures’ is a complete departure from Hirst’s previous work because of its excessiveness, ambition and audacity. The works “exude a sense of almost mythological power”, while the artist demonstrates “overflowing energy and striking presence of mind” in taking dizzying risks, creating works that embrace “grace and violence in the same spirit”. The protean, elusive, dominating artist becomes one with his collector.
One could hardly have a more overt statement – in the work itself and in its supporting text – of the antagonism of the super-rich to the common man, the hubristic acknowledgment of their Olympian status and their right to exploit and destroy the planet.
Taste for accounting
Yet this philosophy of extreme individualism clashes with an economy of standardization in which many very wealthy but time-poor collectors follow the uniform advice of art advisers, wealth managers and interior designers. The result is a proud demonstration of the audacity to act conventionally.