Gallery Chronicle

By Panero, James | New Criterion, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Gallery Chronicle


Panero, James, New Criterion


I am not the first to suggest that Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the study of price bubbles and other mass misconceptions written by the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in 1841, has something to say about present circumstances. Men "think in herds," wrote Mackay. "It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

Before the downturn of 2008, Damien Hirst appeared to ride the wave of irrational exuberance. Here was the artist of the mad herds. In 2007, he fabricated a diamond-encrusted skull, which he called For the Love of God, and made headlines attempting to sell it for 100 million dollars. Then months before the crash, he unloaded his stock for top dollar at Sotheby's. Just in time, it seemed, he cashed out in an art world example of the "greater fool theory," with sorry speculators left holding the bag of his worthless gewgaws.

For anyone who thought Hirst popped louder than a Vegas exurb after that auction, die past month has been a reminder that there's still air left in die pneumatic Brit. The dealer Larry Gagosian has scheduled an exhibition of Hirst's "spot" paintings in all eleven of his galleries spread across eight cities on three continents, with a total of 331 works on display worldwide. Regarding these canvases of colored dots painted by Hirst's studio assistants, the finest comment has come out of a viral video by the internet personality Hennessy Youngman, who called them a "perfect storm of banality."

Unlike many of our other toxic assets, Hirst somehow avoided the downgrade of 2008. He has positioned himself as a bubble about a bubble, madness about madness, as much of a statement on popular delusion as a product of it. He designs his artwork to appear valueless--blown-up baubles, useless pills, the trinkets of a carnival midway writ large--then sits back as his prices plump up against all reason. What matters is the way we respond to them. Amplified through a feedback loop of supposed meaning, popular reaction builds into a deafening noise that Hirst and his supporters point to as evidence of his ability to resonate with mass hysteria.

Brilliant, right? Except for one thing: I always thought Hirst was worthless, and I've yet to meet anyone who thought otherwise. So where is the madness? It doesn't exist. It never did. The Hirst bubble was never the product of mass delusion. It was something far less interesting--a fake bubble puffed up and maintained by a syndicate of gallerists, museum professors, PR flacks, art gossip reporters, and moneyed collectors. The only madness surrounding Hirst is the hype they generate for him and our exasperation at the inanity of the spectacle.

And, of course, we always knew that. As the critic Will Brand recently wrote: "I'm going to lay this down, just to clarify, so that nobody from the future gets confused: We hate this shit. Everyone hates this shit. These spots reflect nothing about how we live, see, or trunk, they're just some weird meme for the impossibly rich that nobody knows how to stop."

The Gagosian shows are merely groundwork for Hirst's retrospective at Tate Modern this spring. The Tate will then promote future sales at Gagosian. And so on. That's the insidious thing about die Hirst bubble. Unlike a real bubble, we never want to buy in, yet somehow we end up holding the goods anyway, in this case through our public institutions. We did not willingly inflate anything. Instead, the Hirst bubble blows up by knocking the air out of the rest of us. It comes down to a battle over air rights. So many artists are making vital work today. They could resonate the spots off Hirst. They just need their air back.

Art abhors a vacuum. It needs atmosphere to bounce its energy around. That's why artists, writers, and videographers are slowly building their own infrastructure to support an alternative ecosystem for serious art. The}' are finding ways to nurture the art they value most. …

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