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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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08/15/2008 Archived Entry: "Book review: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark"

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark
By Don Thompson
Published by Palgrave Macmillan

Review by Ginger Mayerson

$12M for a stuffed shark...

But is it art?

So, thank you very much to Palgrave Macmillan for sending us an advance copy of "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark," subtitled, "The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art," which a helluvan understatement.

The book goes a long way to explain how and why the superstar artists and the superstar galleries, but mainly the superstar auction houses (Sotherbys and Christies mainly) and the superstar collectors (Charles Saatchi mainly) do such strange things with money and contemporary art. I can understand the prices for things that have survived for decades, if not centuries, but $12M for a stuffed shark? And it's not even the original stuffed shark Damien Hirst bought, had stuffed and put in a case full of formaldehyde. That shark rotted away so badly it had to be replaced after the sale to Steve Cohen. I recount these facts calmly, but as I was reading this book, my brain would occasionally short out: $12 million yankee dollars for a stuffed shark?! WTF?! Huh.

Dr. Thompson spent a lot of time down the art world rabbit hole and remained sane enough to come back to reality and explain it all to us. Basically, the key to understanding the multimillion dollar art world is understanding branding. The example he cites that stuck in my mind is a self portrait triptych by Francis Bacon. I'm a big Francis Bacon fan, so I feel any painting by him is worth a fortune. Well, no, it isn't. This painting sold for less than if it had been in the collection of a famous collector. So, here's the deal: Branded Artists + Branded Auction House Sale = obscene amounts of money changing hands. Branded Artists + Branded Collector + Branded Auction House Sale = obscene amounts of money squared changing hands.

Now, Francis Bacon was a painter for a long time before he became the Francis Bacon Brand Painter and he became this over the course of a fairly long, productive career. Branded collectors started collecting him after he was something of a big deal Brand. Charles Saatchi has stood this idea on it's head. If Branded Collector C Saatchi comes to your art school and buys your final project, Art Student A becomes Branded Artist A and will be an even bigger deal when Saatchi sells whatever he bought at a Branded Auction House or Branded Gallery or even a private sale. It doesn't even matter what Saatchi originally paid Artist A; everything Artist A makes will sell like crazy for as long as the vogue lasts and then again during the resale vogue. Is Artist A an artist on par with Francis Bacon? Who know and who cares? Saatchi owns his or her work so that makes that artist's work valuable, whether it's good art or not.

I have this weird idea that there is a difference between what something costs and what it's worth. Wacky, I know, but there you have it.

See, no one really knows what's good art anymore, they just know what it sold for at Christies. No one even asks themselves if the work is going to endure and have meaning to anyone in twenty years. Not even the artists know if they're any good because they just have to keep cranking out the work to keep their prices up.

And here's where my brain shorts out: That's crazy! An artist is not a factory.

Not so, I read in Dr. Thompson's book, the artist doesn't even have to touch the work, just sign it. I wonder where Hirst signed the shark? No, now that I think about it, I don't want to know.

Dr. Thompson does a good job of explaining the economics of the Branded Art World (BAW) without ever passing judgment on anyone in it. Or very subtly: he does explain at length that much of the art buying frenzy by billionaires has to do with insecurity and low self esteem. If almost anyone can walk into the a house and say, "Oh, that's a Warhol!" with suitable awe, the owner of said Warhol will never have to explain anything to anyone. One possession sums up his (yes, his, it's mostly men) wealth, his taste, and his place in the BAW food chain. The BAW collectors never take risks or waste time on anything that isn't BAW herd-approved. Is that wrong? No, but it is kind of amusing.

According to Dr. Thompson's numbers, you can make as much if not more money in art collecting as in stocks for the same investment over the same period of time. It's the same risk, you have to know or hope you're picking the right investment. Buying stocks for your retirement seems more sensible to me, but I'm a philistine. And collectors like Saatchi, Cohen, and LA's own Eli Broad have rigged the game to some extent by driving up prices just by tuning art work around for sale after a short time in their collection. And it's not a sure thing: Dr. Thompson points out that some big ticket art in the Eighties has lost value over the years. (I wish I could find the passage because I'm not sure if he mentioned it was Rauchenberg's or Ruscha's work that wasn't selling for as much anymore. That's a shame because I think very highly of those two artists.) So even if one is buying what the big boys are buying, there's no guarantee it will be worth the same jack in a decade. As a child I was told that you should buy art you love living with and not worry about it's value. Buy stocks and land if you want value and security.

And this is what bothers me about the BAW, and what I think is one of Dr. Thompson's points: the BAW is selling work that the varnish is barely dry on. Work by kids, really, and neither the work nor the kid has really proved there's anything to it. Is it art? Does it have technique? Does it have composition? Does it have lineage? Does it have soul? Does it have fins? One of these is not the criteria of enduring art. But we are told it is, and most of us just have a good laugh at that and go on making our own art. Oh, and kids, don't go into art to make money. If you love art and want money, you'll just break your heart. And if money is your sole reason for making art, you're a soulless little bastard, aren't you?

This is a damn fine book. Even without the illustrations in the advance copy, the flow and wit of the writing kept me on the edge of my seat. Each chapter is very satisfying and I took my time because it was such an enjoyable read. I think I'm glad my copy did not have illustrations because I swung between shock, outrage and amusement at the antics of those crazy BAWsters. I think if I'd seen the dreck these people were paying hundreds of thousands, if not millions for, my shock and outrage might have overwhelmed my enjoyment of the humor in the book.

Get your hands on this book because if we have to live around the super rich, we might as well get some laughs out of some of the super dumb stuff they spend way too much money on. You can hate Bill Gates all you want, but as far as I know he doesn't buy dead animals and call it art.

Note: I had a moment at the Hackenblog about this book:

"When an artist becomes branded, the market tends to accept as legitimate whatever the artist submits. Consider the attraction of a work by Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, whose Today series involves painting a date on canvas. Thus the work Nov. 8 1989 (just those letters and numerals, in block white against a black background), in liquitex on canvas, 26 in _ 36 in (66 cm _ 91 cm), sold for 310,000 GBP in February 2006 at Christie’s auction house in London. Read on

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