What a Waste of Money: Expenditure, the Death Drive and the Contemporary Art Market

Article excerpt

'What a waste of money!' In discussions of the enormous sums attracted by iconic works of postwar and contemporary art, it's a familiar refrain, a default position for conservative cultural pundits, irate bloggers (and their lurking, anonymous commenters) and upholders of commonsense everywhere, who, when it comes to art, don't know much, but know what they like--and hate. Thus, for example, in September 2008 the Scottish tabloid newspaper the Daily Record greeted the news that work by the English conceptual artist Damien Hirst had raised 111 million [pounds sterling] (1) at an auction at Sotheby's in London with the headline 'What a Waste of Money for Damien Hirst "Art"'. The accompanying article, by the notoriously vituperative columnist Joan Burnie, is a formulaic, throwaway exercise in populist philistinism, which nonetheless manages, in a single, caustic paragraph, to encapsulate the argument I will advance in this article: 'Well, the hedge fund w*****s [sic] have to spend their filthy lucre on something, don't they? And a shark in formaldehyde does sound rather appropriate'. (2) In this densely compacted, weirdly cathected passage, the prime representatives of present-day finance capital in the popular imagination--hedge fund managers--are characterised as subject to an absolute imperative to divest themselves of the money they have accumulated. Their profligacy is masturbatory (3) (they are 'wankers' who indiscriminately 'spend'--that is, in the traditional British slang, ejaculate) but also excretory: the wealth they are compelled to squander is 'filthy lucre', suggesting the familiar psychoanalytic association between money and faeces, and, more specifically, a notion of money as a waste substance that--like shit--must be regularly expelled in order to maintain the healthy functioning of the system. For Burnie, a 'shark in formaldehyde' (a piece entitled The Kingdom, which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for 9.6 million [pounds sterling]) is presumably an 'appropriate' object of such extravagance because it evokes the cold-blooded, predatory nature of the stereotypical financier. (This line of argument has a notable critical history in readings of Hirst's sharks as evoking a deregulated, streamlined, ruthlessly Darwinian capitalism. For Luke White, Hirst's work partakes of a tradition in which 'the shark provides ... an image ... of nature being as rapacious, insatiable and unfeeling as capital accumulation itself'. (4)) As Burnie implies, however, via her mention of the formaldehyde that artificially suspends the processes of putrefaction inside Hirst's trademark vitrines, this 7 foot 9 inch tiger shark is a fitting purchase for latter-day plutocrats intent on dissipating their fortunes because, like semen lost to the circuits of reproduction in masturbation or shit cast out of the body, it is itself, quite literally, waste, refuse, excrement.

The lesson I take from this knee-jerk response, then, is that the narrow-minded and reactionary standpoint typically occupied by those who denounce money spent on contemporary art as money wasted should not blind cultural critics to the kernel of truth in such assertions: that it is precisely the function of the contemporary art market--and of the art auction in particular--to provide an arena in which reserves of capital may be wantonly expended, and that the wastefulness of such acts of prodigality is maximised when the object purchased itself represents, or literally embodies, waste. Hence the prominence today of artworks that entail death, decay, mortification and abjection. In articulating this position, I draw on a theoretical tradition that has its roots in the Freudian theory of the death drive and runs through the work of the French thinkers Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva.

In critical and scholarly commentary on contemporary art, there are, as I will show, occasional gestures towards the idea that the art collector's primary (if unacknowledged and perhaps unconscious) objective is not the acquisition of a valuable prize, but rather, to quote Bataille, 'a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning'. …