Art Bête Noire

art beta noire
The Golden Calf by Damien Hirst. Photo -
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art beta noire
The Golden Calf by Damien Hirst. Photo –

“The understanding of modern art art is that it defies logical interpretation. Modern Art has bypassed the embodiment of visual Esthetics and has in ways evolved into  a state of perverted surrealism.”

A couple of years back, on 15th September, 2008 when Wall Street was in the throes of an economic crisis and the Lehmann Brothers went bankrupt, one man in a salesroom at Sothebys, London, went on to create art history by selling a complete show titled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”. The exhibits went on to raise $198 million, breaking all records of a solo artist auction. All of his works followed  the central theme of “Death” and included  series of dead animals that were preserved, sometimes partially dissected in formaldehyde. “The Golden Calf,” the piece de resistance at the auction, was a bull in formaldehyde with 18-carat gold hooves and horns. The calf is crowned with a sun disc of solid gold, a symbol of pagan deification. It was sold for a whopping $20 million, allegedly to the Qatari royal family’s art collection. The artist was Damien Hirst, one of the richest artists alive on the planet.

Damien Hirst: The Bête Noir Phenomenon 

If an ordinary person were to look at the exhibits at Sotheby’s on that fateful day, he/she would have been petrified and mistaken it for a collector’s mortuary. Neatly preserved animals, or remains of animals preserved in formaldehyde, and expensive props added to them to showcase their net value. The showstopper that day was “The Golden Calf”, 13 feet tall and 12 feet wide, an 18-month-old calf with a golden crown and hooves, in a silicone and formaldehyde brew-filled tank plated in 18 carat gold and set atop a Carrara marble plinth.

Things got murkier on 10 April, 2012. The Tate Modern Gallery saw record number of visitors for Hirst’s “Retrospective”, which included blood chilling installations such as a rotting cow’s head with maggots and swarms of flies and a room full of butterflies which have been seen lying dead in large numbers on the gallery floor.

damien hirst
In and Out of Love (1991). Photo – Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

“In and Out of Love”, the two-room installation, featured live butterflies growing from pupae on canvases in one small, humid room, and dead ones stuck to brightly coloured paintings in the other. And if this wasn’t weird enough, the other exhibits included the pickled shark, hacksawed sheep and human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds. The less outrageous among them were the spot paintings, spin paintings and Hirst’s signature pharmaceutical cupboards.

The more I learnt about Damien Hirst, the more drawn I was into his macabre world of ‘Dark Arts’. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, A Thousand Years, Away from the Flock, and The Virgin Mother are some of his most sold out pieces of  art. Damien Hirst has caught the collector’s market by storm and has in ways revolutionised the sale of contemporary art. What is  confounding, however, is the fact where and how the transition had taken place, from a market that was inclined to aesthetically detailed Renaissance arts, but now turned into morbid post modernist one.

The Modern Art Movement: A Journey Through Time

I don’t confess to being a connoisseur of collector’s pieces, and yet, having been inspired by the lives and works of Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Magritte and Dalí with equal measure, appreciation of great art, is something that I have tried to understand and learn. Relating to the Renaissance Movement was easy, for it gave importance to form and aesthetics, and laid the foundation for the Impressionists. Post Impressionist Movement saw a unique breed of Artists from Van Gogh to Cezanne who gave emphasis to colour and freedom that has inspired Expressionists and the beginning and transition to the period of Abstract Expressionism.

starry night vincent van gogh
Starry Night by Van Gogh. Photo –

In the words of art critic Sue Hubbard: “At the beginning of the twentieth century Van Gogh gave the Expressionists a new painterly language that enabled them to go beyond surface appearance and penetrate deeper essential truths. It is no coincidence that at this very moment Freud was also mining the depths of that essentially modern domain—the subconscious. This beautiful and intelligent exhibition places Van Gogh where he firmly belongs; as the trailblazer of modern art.”

Thus, Modern Art was based on the elusive subconscious and its relation to our world. Incidentally, this was around the same time that Freud was also working on his psychoanalytical theories which greatly influenced the artists of the time. It brought with it defining new movements like Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. The Cubists analysed objects, broke them up and reassembled them in an abstract form. Instead of depicting them from a single point of view, the artist depicted the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.

All these movements lead to greater artistic freedom to experiment with individual context and abstract interpretation than general perception and Esthetic conformism. Artists like Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning redefined Post Modernist Abstractism. Pop art and installations are a byproduct of the Post Modern Art as it stands today.

The Evolution of the Art Market:

It was around the mid 19th century that collectors gradually came into existence. These men made a living and were making large fortunes in parts of England and other countries, and collected works of art and traditions, giving their patronage to the artists of the day. They usually bought from the artists themselves or from exhibitions and sold their investments when the market demand escalated for that particular product. There’s been no looking back since then.

Art auction houses are thriving businesses. An artwork’s artistic appeal has been long debated between artists and patrons. But the charismatic appeal of artworks for those who would possess them is historically the initial indicator of value. For collectors, the emotional connection they feel with the work creates the subjective personal value. The art market operates on an economic model that considers where art is bought and sold for values based not only on a work’s perceived cultural value, but on both its past monetary value as well as its predicted future value.

Another factor in valuation of a particular piece are the seller’s reasons for selling a particular work and the buyer’s reasons for procuring. A seller may be motivated by financial need, boredom or the desire to raise funds. A buyer may be motivated by market trends, personal connection with the work, or to drive the art value up or down as in stock markets.

The USA has the largest art market with a global share of 47%. UK’s world market is around 25% while in Asia, Hong Kong continues its dominance. In 2012, the global fine art market turnover was estimated at around $60.8 billion.

Shock and Awe Factor in Art Sales:

They say that art and culture of a period reflects the civilisation of that period. With globalisation and economic empowerment, consumerism and instant gratification have become the mantra of our generation. This has definitely had a huge impact on visual arts. Consumers want novelty and entertainment. As a result, artists, curators and professionals have turned the business of art into a macabre spectacle devoid of any aesthetic appeal or value. The public’s desire to be shocked and awed has been met. The reason why perhaps dead sharks, ice-sculptures, decaying animals and demonstrations of dying flies are the talk in the collectors circles.

the lovers renee margritte
The Lovers by Renee Magritte. Photo –

The art market has surreptitiously played a dominant role in edifying and promoting the culture of Bizarre Post-Modernist works that pass of as High Art. The Neo Conceptualists say “Oui” and traditional conformists and amateurs like me, definitely give it a thumbs down. I’d gladly settle for Magritte’s “The Lovers”  or Iman Maleki’s “Omens of Hafez,” at the auction house any day!

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