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

Article excerpt

Abstract The commonplace, knee-jerk response to the enormous sums realised by iconic works of postwar and contemporary art - 'what a waste of money!' - is conventionally countered in three ways: by explaining that such pieces possess an aesthetic importance that fully justifies the amounts spent to acquire them; by, conversely, making the pragmatic point that artworks can often prove to be extraordinarily lucrative investments; or, in a synthesis of these polarised views, by arguing that collecting art yields a degree of 'symbolic capital' (evidence of one's knowledge, taste and sophistication; access to an exclusive, glamorous and creative social milieu) for which many are understandably willing to pay a premium. In this essay, however, I argue that the philistine 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. I pay particular attention to the auction of work by the 'Young British Artist' Damien Hirst at Sotheby's in London in September 2008, a carnival of expenditure that partook of the wider Zeitgeist of financial dissipation generated by the global 'credit crunch', then entering its most intense phase.

Keywords art market, Damien Hirst, money, credit crunch, death drive, Sigmund Freud, Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva

'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 million1 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 masturbatory3 (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. …