Bleached out pop art for the wealthy

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Neoliberalism has promoted an art market that encourages the rise of artists such as Damien Hirst as "factory" owners, employing students on low wages to churn out works for the world's super-rich dealers and collectors. Noel Halifax asks how we got to this sad state of affairs.

What is art for? Oscar Wilde famously said that art was useless and by implication outside of utility — therefore it was able to transcend the capitalist system. Today the most successful artists seem to have rejected the notion of art as transcending the market and a system of value based on money in favour of a neoliberal art world of “art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake”, as rock band 10cc put it.

A number of recent events have highlighted this domination and distortion by the market and the changing role of art. In March the Italian street artist blu spent some days destroying his own work across Bologna in protest at the exhibition at Palazzo Pepoli, Street Art — Banksy & Co, in which some of his work had been “salvaged for conservation” and taken from the streets. This is part of the ongoing war between art dealers seizing street art and the street artists whose rationale is to subvert the market and make free art in the streets.

Meanwhile an exhibition of the work of Jeff Koons, backed by his friend and fellow artist Damien Hirst, opens in May in Hirst’s Newport Gallery in London. They are two of the richest and most powerful artists and their work is made by factories of art practitioners. They symbolise the new art production system where the work is rarely if ever made by the artists themselves; art school graduate workers make the art with varying degrees of input from the artists.

How did it come to this — the artist as capitalist employing alienated workers on £10+ an hour while he, and sometimes she, makes millions? On one level this is a return to the studio system. The early modern Renaissance saw art works produced by the artists as heads of studios who were doing the most difficult and skilled work themselves while overseeing a workforce of skilled craftsmen and artists who made the paints, prepared the canvas or board and filled in the simpler areas of the work. Essentially this was a craftsman’s workshop with an apprentice system owing as much to the feudal city as it did to nascent capitalism. Until the 19th century the biggest customers of art remained the church and the nobility. In England in the 18th century this system was adapted to supply the new captains of industry with art to fill the booming stately home market with art bought from Italy or made in the English studios.

The 19th century model of the great artist was a romantic myth of a misunderstood lone genius working in a garret and in opposition to the deadening world of normality, whose greatness would be recognised only after his death. Some artists do indeed fit this description — in Paris from the late 19th century through to New York in the 1950s an anti-establishment bohemia made up of lone artists living and working near each other did exist.

The decline of the bohemian world started from what seemed its most extreme expression — Andy Warhol’s factory. How bohemian and anti-establishment could an art studio be? It was made up of drag queens and street people of various sorts, with a studio in the centre of New York where all the respectables had long since fled to the suburbs to sip their dry martinis. This was a world of hanging round the docks, taking speed and looking for rough trade. And yet this was the model from which the modern neoliberal art world sprang. Warhol’s art was always of a dual nature, both subverting and enjoying the detritus of commercialism. As it developed it became less and less alternative and subversive and more and more corporate and celebrity-orientated.

The factory, which started as a parody of the capitalist art market, became the model of what was to follow and dominate. Today the art world is beset by the capitalist art market and the boom bubble of the art and property markets. The great Australian art writer Robert Hughes commented that “Jeff Koons is to Andy Warhol as the baby was to Rosemary”, referencing Roman Polanski’s classic horror film, Rosemary’s Baby (she gives birth to the spawn of Satan, but it’s not her fault). Koons is no critic of commercialism but its celebrator and booster; his work is a bleached out pop art for the corporate world and super-rich. But the comment fits not just the art product but the way the art is made. Koons, as with Hirst, has little to do with the making of any of his art pieces.

Hirst has a number of factories in London and Gloucester where his workers are the ones who actually paint the paintings or make the sculptures. The one time he tried to do the paintings himself in 2012 the outcome was so awful that even the supine art world had to acknowledge how dreadful they were. And so it is that the current market leaders in the art world are part of the super-rich, running their factories as any other corporate business.

The factory system has taken over another aspect of life; the proletarianisation of the professions has expanded into the art world. The workers for Hirst have little artistic input into the works they produce and are paid a little over £10 an hour; Koons treats his workers a bit better, while the Chapman brothers work more closely with their workers. Gilbert and George operate more in the old studio craftsman-apprentice style.

So far each artist factory owner runs their operations in the manner of the early capitalists — heavily involved in the work being done. But if this process continues perhaps the art factory owner and manager roles will become separated, so capitalist artists could use an art factory to make “their” art, but it would be theirs by ownership alone, produced by totally alienated labour. So much for art as non-alienated work.

This process does have an effect on the art itself. Hirst is so disengaged from his work that it has become stale and repetitive with an element of self-hatred. As he put it himself speaking of the art world, “c*nts sells shit to fools”. Tracey Emin operates the same system but has a real engagement with her art. She can actually draw and so unlike Hirst her work has developed, even though in her political views she has embraced neoliberalism more fully than Hirst.

It is important to note that not all artists of this generation operate this way — Jeremy Deller, for example, works with people; they don’t work for him.

This system is also based on the boom in the price of art. With the declining rate of profit in the system the rich, seeking safe spaces for their money, are using the art world as a place to invest. The art world has all the makings of a perfect bubble. Art is worth what people believe it is worth. Value and worth are difficult to calculate meaningfully for art. Fads, fashions and real long term value are hard to determine and so the art dealers and top artists have for years rigged the system.

The galleries have got so much bigger and wealthier that they cannot risk letting the price of their artworks fall. They rig the free market to maintain the booming art world. Contemporary artworks with inflated values are bought not to grace the walls of rich people’s homes, but as investments, to be held for future sale when the price is right. American economist Nouriel Roubini made a call at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015 for greater regulation of the art market. An article in Apollo magazine outlines his argument:

“Roubini stresses that the market remains opaque, despite relative improvement, with art ‘used for both tax evasion and tax avoidance in the United States and abroad’. It similarly presents a readily accessible ‘conduit for money laundering’, with price opacity facilitating insider trading and outright manipulation, and few checks on the origins of payments for private treaty sales.”

All of this is allowed to continue due to the secrecy with which deals between investors, galleries and auction houses operate. As the Financial Times put it, “Modern art auctions are as baffling as the paintings”.

The big players in the art world have created a bubble based on self-propelled demand, seeming to offer a safer investment than profits from industrial production. But bubbles go pop and this has happened in the past. The high Victorians loved idealised realistic art. Works now considered semi-kitsch, such as The Stag at Bay, were bought for huge amounts of money. Fifty years on fashion changed with the arrival of modernism and the value of Victorian art collapsed. The Victorian art buyers found themselves owners of art worth a fraction of what they paid for it.

The artist and prankster Maurizio Cattelan has just sold his latest work to the Guggenheim gallery in New York — a solid gold toilet which is to go into the toilets there and which the public can use. Previously he has had his shit canned and sold as art. It’s all very funny — and it has him laughing all the way to the bank — but it is also intended as a comment on the corporatised art world. Such is the lovely art world of today.