Todd Hartley: I’m with Stupid
September 19, 2008
Call me an unsophisticated rube, but I just don’t get modern art. To me, Jackson Pollock’s paintings look like something you might hang on your refrigerator if your second-grader made one in art class, but you’d be counting the days until he came home with macaroni glued to construction paper so you could take the damn Pollock-looking thing down.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with Pollock’s work, per se. I’m just saying I don’t get it. Someone more in the know than me might look at a canvas covered with random paint drippings and find it the most amazing thing ever created. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.
For the life of me, though, I can’t figure out what people were thinking at the Sotheby’s auction of Damien Hirst’s art that took place recently in London. That show, titled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” featured a number of new works by the renowned artist, and the bidders went a little off the deep end in their efforts to land one of the prized pieces.
Some of the works were pretty cool, to be sure. For instance, Lot No. 5, “The Kingdom,” featured a large tiger shark soaked in formaldehyde and encased in glass. That particular item sold for 9,561,250 pounds sterling, or about $17,172,961. Not too shabby, but not even the most expensive piece sold at the auction. That honor went to “The Golden Calf,” a glass-encased cow with golden horns and hooves that went for 10,345,250 pounds.
There’s no excuse, however, for what happened with Lot No. 53. That item, a 12-inch by 16-inch wall hanging entitled “Grave Matters,” was described as “household gloss on canvas with contents of ashtray” and was expected to fetch between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds. The bidding got a little heated, though, and when all was said and done, the actual sale price was 121,250 pounds sterling.
You heard that right; someone actually paid $217,777 for a bunch of cigarette butts glued to a canvas.
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I mean, I could see paying that kind of money if there were something rare and valuable stuck to the canvas. Such was the case with Hirst’s “For the Love of God,” which, with an asking price of 50 million pounds, would have set a record for a living artist. (There is some debate as to whether it ever actually sold.) That piece, which cost 14 million pounds to produce, featured a human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds.
Cigarette butts, however, are not exactly diamonds. It’d be one thing if Hirst lived and worked in Singapore, where, I’m told, there’s nary a cigarette butt to be found. Then I could see there being some sort of novelty to “Grave Matters.” But Hirst is from England, meaning that if he somehow couldn’t round up bushels of pre-smoked fags on the street outside his house, he could just take the Chunnel to France and find himself knee-deep in butts the moment he stepped off the train. It’s not like smokers are particularly choosy about where they litter.
(While we’re on that subject, what the hell is the deal with that, anyway? Why do some smokers assume it’s OK to just throw cigarette butts on the ground when they’re done smoking? Just because your breath stinks and your teeth are yellow doesn’t give you the right to be a litterbug. Pick up after yourselves already, you slobs.)
Anyway, back to modern art. It seems to me that the key to being a successful modern artist is to establish a name for yourself, and then you can pretty much do whatever you want. Take Andy Warhol, for example. If you or I painted a picture of a soup can, people would think we were idiots, or maybe just hungry. But when Warhol did it, it became a pop sensation.
The same holds true for Damien Hirst. Nobody else could get away with gluing cigarette butts to a canvas, but since it was Hirst, it was suddenly worth $217,777. That says to me that he could probably pawn off anything as art.
And if you don’t believe me, I’d like to turn your attention to our next item up for bid, Lot No. 2, “A Loaf Adorned,” which you will notice is described in your auction guide as “Hirst defecation with red ribbon.”