Art has long had a complicated relationship with the idea of excess. On one hand, when it is preoccupied with reality, it seeks to reflect and contain what it represents, but on the other, it often preoccupies itself with what is larger than life, and seeks to push at boundaries. These boundaries can involve scale or subject-matter, but often value, in both a monetary and intellectual sense, is the line that contemporary artists habitually toe. In fact, it could be argued that it is art’s job to challenge bourgeois notions of moderation, economy or the depressing paltriness of ‘good taste,’ as it invites us to put a price, sometimes excessive, on its output.
When Damian Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull sculpture, For the Love of God, was sold for $100 million, there were predictable cries of outrage about the unhealthy preoccupation of contemporary artists with their wealthy collectors and their own self-enrichment. It all seemed so antithetical to the more egalitarian spirit of the twentieth century. The piece was roundly condemned as an egregious example of bling – it was garishly vulgar, and its promotion by Hirst was little more than a publicity stunt.
And yet these reproofs overlooked the point of the work. The skull beneath the jewels represents the ultimate momento mori and is reminiscent of Dutch Vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century that featured the excessive trappings of wealth displayed alongside human skulls. Both Dutch paintings and Hirst’s skull remind us that life is transient, death is certain, and worldly excess amounts to little more than meaningless vanity.
Like Hirst’s work, the Vanitas paintings by masters such as Evert Collier are not without their own complicated paradoxes. As the Catholic indulgencies in Renaissance art gave way in Northern Europe to the strictures of Calvinism, society was meant to deplore human depravity and sinfulness. And yet the rich middle-class merchants who purchased art – paying princely sums for the privilege – were able to flaunt their wealth by hanging these beautiful still-life pictures on their walls. The paintings mocked this practice: the inclusion of skulls, rotting fruit, burnt-out candles, and other references to mortality was a way to denounce excess and foreshadow an earthly ending. Put another way, costly paintings of treasure were themselves treasured even as a love of treasure was censured in them.
Unsurprisingly, the purchaser of For the Love of God was reportedly an investment group, and there is a rich irony in the idea that a piece that speaks of human acquisitiveness in the (literal) face of mortality should be the subject of temporal commercial speculation. But perhaps the artwork’s fate adds another dimension to its message. The artist has his cake and eats it of course – he has enriched himself by commentating on the vanity of riches, and in the end, as with much contemporary art, the message becomes subsumed beneath the weight of the notion that art is really only ‘about’ itself. The piece is not therefore without a kind of self-referential humour. When the sculpture was first exhibited, Hirst was asked by journalists what his next subject would be. “Two diamond skeletons shagging” was his joking response, and the real target of the joke was left for us to contemplate.
Then, with the news last week that Jeff Koons’s stainless steel Rabbit sculpture had sold at auction for $91 million, notions of value and excess entered a new and fascinating dimension. In one way, the precious stones studding Hirst’s work have straightforward, recognisable worth. Similarly, a Dutch master’s Vanitas painting, almost magically realistic, demonstrates a labour-intensive worth. The same cannot be claimed for Rabbit.
As the current exhibition of his works at The Ashmolean shows, Koons’ preoccupation with kitsch, the tacky and cheap-looking objects of everyday life, is reversed into highly valuable art. While some critics point to the influence of childhood memory and the monumentalizing of ephemeral subjects as markers of Koons’ aesthetic, there is little doubt that the principle preoccupation of the artist is with the purpose of art. He considers what art is about, what qualifies as art, and what is qualified by it.
The excessive monetary value placed on his work clearly forms part of this commentary, and in some ways, it tells us what art is not about. It is not simply about materials (even if it is about materiality), it is not about noble subject matter, it is not about the sublime, it is not even about the hand of the artist in the creation of the work itself, as Koons famously delegates the physical making of it to others. Like Warhol, Koons explores the no-mans-land between fine art and popular culture, and like Duchamp, he challenges pre-conceived ideas about the worth that Western culture has conferred on what artists produce.
So is the excessive monetary value placed on some art a signifier of the grotesque, of the decadence, debasement and degeneration of our culture? Or is it in some way a validation of it? For some artists, cashing in on the elevation of ‘bad taste’ into art is accidental, a mere function of Western capitalism that they must represent in their work, and have represented by it. As Grayson Perry put it, the auction price of an artwork is one of the metrics that carry weight in the art world.
In the end, the fact that a self-proclaimed “anti-elitist” artist like Koons can now only be collected by billionaires and hedge funds is funny, and perhaps we shouldn’t over-intellectualise the joke. As Oscar Wilde said, “Moderation is a fatal thing, and nothing succeeds like excess.” While there exists a surplus of money in some quarters, however inequitable that might be, there will also exist art that both discusses and absorbs it.