Normally, the machinations of art-gallery politics are about as relevant to ordinary life as a fart in a hurricane — worth noting briefly, if at all. Over this past weekend, however, a dramatic exception took place. Damien Hirst and Larry Gagosian split up. It’s not just that the world’s most powerful art dealer and the world’s most successful artist are parting ways, remarkable as that might be in itself. The breakup comes at the end of a sharp, sudden, virtually unprecedented decline of Hirst’s career and represents something of a turning point for art, and possibly for culture more broadly. It’s the end of the era of pure money.
Hirst’s steep decline is partly due to the basic fact that he’s been making terrible art for the last few years. He has produced some dreadful still lifes and a magnificently grotesque sculpture that is both ugly and pointless and, much less forgivable, not particularly interesting. But diminishing quality doesn’t explain the ferocity of the collapse. The value of works that have been much feted, and which have made him among the richest artists in the world, with a fortune somewhere in the vicinity of 400 million dollars, has been declining steadily. If you own a Hirst, sell now. The value of Hirst paintings sold between 2005 and 2008 have taken nearly a 30 percent bath in the meantime. Since 2009, a third of his works have failed to sell at auction.
Artists go in and out of fashion all the time, of course, and their value at auction changes accordingly. But Hirst is a different matter, because Hirst’s work was always interesting only to the extent of what people were willing to pay for it. He took Warholian superficiality to its logical conclusion, which is why, even in defeat, he is still the most representative artist of his time. The definitive quote about Damien Hirst comes from John Lanchester’s novel, Capital, my book of the year for 2012. The novel’s main character, a city banker named Roger, owns a Hirst spot painting: “Roger’s considered view of the painting, looking at it from aesthetic, art-historical, interior-design, and psychological points of view, was that it had cost forty-seven thousand pounds, plus V.A.T.”
Just so. It’s no coincidence that Hirst’s peak was in 2008, just before the economic crash. Hirst’s paintings and scultpures are the aesthetic equivalent of bad collateralized debt obligations. They are worth what people believe they are worth. And when people stop believing? They are worth nothing. It’s not entirely absurd to imagine that eventually you’ll be able to pick up a Hirst spot painting at a garage sale for twenty bucks, because if someone was willing to sell one of his spot paintings for twenty bucks, that’s exactly what it would be worth.