The Golden Calf of Immortality
And he [Aaron] received them [the golden earrings] at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
I have avoided for some time now any obvious references to mythology, spirituality, religion, politics or history in my work. I have, almost out of instinct, always felt the greatest works of art are both sublime and oblique. Wether the off-key piano riffs of Thelonius Monk, or the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, art strikes you hardest when it uncovers the mysteries of the universe by creating even more mysteries. By emptying any direct content from a work of art, we are left to add our own. The cumulative sum of our collective imaginations is mirrored back to us as an infinite regress. For some witnesses of art this is akin to horror and rejected out of hand. Others are turned away by the expectation of their own examination, as if to reject a request to educate oneself—better to remain ignorant. A few mindful participants leave shaken and energized by these questions.
A practiced artist is capable of making pretty, perhaps even beautiful works of art at will. This may appear as magic to those outside the art world, but no more so than the inner workings of a computer chip or the engineering behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Human beings (Homo Sapien Sapien) are still intrinsically bound to their reptilian brains and will respond to certain stimuli in predicable ways. The Golden Mean isn’t magic, it’s a realization of this fact. So when I read today that Robert Hughes’ response to the latest Damien Hirst escapade is to say the work is “absurd” and “tacky commodities”, I expect Hughes is responding to the obviousness in Hirst’s work, not any particular aesthetic value.
It is rare that works of art obtain great monetary value in the artist’s lifetime. There was of course the indentured servitude of the Renaissance painters all the way through to the great court painters of the 17th century, but hardly an equivalent to modern commoditizing of art work. Power in 17th century Spain, England and France remained firmly in the grasp of empire and artists merely served their suitors (the Kings and Queens) albeit at a higher pay grade, as the hand maidens did. It wasn’t until the late 1940’s America that great value was placed on modern works of art that living artists became Capitalists. Pollocks’ work served as the first bridge to this new relationship between art and money. Unbeknownst to the New York School painters at the time, money was and still is, functioning as a devise to nullify the quality of the sublime to those who could not obtain it by other means. Ownership at great expense, meant money was equivalent to spiritual awareness. The oblique strategies of art could be commoditized and thereby their knowledge transferred to those who purchased them. It is why Bill Gates owns one of Leonardo’s codexes and corporations spend millions on museums, architecture and public art. Even after Serra’s public art fiasco Tilted Arc manifested itself in the ’70s, he has since risen to a kind of sculptor laureate of America primarily because the corporate elite hope to buy souls (as was done with indemnities and the Roman Catholic Church) born out of the mysteries of corten steel.
There is no surprise then in the rise of Damien Hirst given his acute understanding of this modern paradigm. His career has been built upon leveraging the just-mysterious in a way that precisely attracts the wealthy, like moth to flame. His work, more conceptual than physical despite its outward appearances is a clever conceit against its suitors. Like Warhol and Koons before him he has made the act of capitalism the conceptual product, and the physical works pawns in its production. Unlike his forebears, Hirst has elevated this concept to its logical conclusion—becoming the one who seeks indemnification himself. First with his For the Love of God diamond encrusted skull and now with his own singular Sotheby’s auction, pre-gallery sale he has become what he believes to be the entirety of the art world edified in one human being. He is maker, seller, auctioneer, and buyer. He has melted the golden earrings to make a golden calf, both symbolically and literally. He is a less belligerent version of Donald Trump, in the art world. A more appropriate analogy is Liberace. I am certain that Hirst’s own museum of purely Damien Hirst works is not far off.
The question is not so much one of absurdity as Hughes purports, but one of endgame. Hirst is a soul killer. By leveraging his knowledge of the art world and art history he has sought to immolate art itself. He is perfectly content to consume himself in this exploit because he is exchanging one form of knowledge for what is perceived to be another. In that regard Hirst clearly sees himself as a kind of King or Emperor, retaining knowledge through power and not the other way around. His only idea is the idea of destruction. He is hedging his bets against his own ability to destroy art by making works that are so rarefied in their abject value that he will realize his apocalyptic art vision. Unfortunately, for Mr. Hirst and very fortunate for the rest of us who aim toward the sublime, his tenure will be short lived. Artists create out of a need to extricate the mysteries of life, not to own them. We will create in poverty and in wealth and that creation is at the core of our knowledge. That intangible knowledge is available to all, free of charge. Hirst’s Golden Calf (shown above) is the perfect metaphor for his own career. He has become a symbol of a failed strategy that goes against nature and in the end is trapped within its own strategies, remaining an absurd object, symbol of the obvious.