Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Cap'n Crunch promotion; Larry Gagosian promotion

When I am asked to give an 'artist talk' for students, something I very much enjoy, I like to derail the me-train ("...and then I said...and then I was like... and then I thought... me,me,me MEEEE MEEE") - and instead of talking about myself, take the opportunity to discuss a topic or idea that I've been worrying. Recently I've been thinking a great deal about consumerism as an ideology - and have been trying to imagine how I would explain myself to a classroom full of art students. On this blog I have explored what consumerism means in terms of smartphonesriots, and Star Trek, but haven't touched the ring of hell I am most intimately acquainted with: art. I've put off discussing consumerism in terms of art, because of the anxiety over the "commodification of art" is so central to art criticism and theory. It is a given embedded so deep within the flesh of contemporary art, questioning it in any way, shape, or form is almost impossible, but the contemptmockery, and even pity Damien Hirst's "The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011" presented itself and I can no longer resist the urge to explain myself to my own people in terms they most understand and are best equipped to appreciate (and least inclined to).

Larry Gagosian, Hirst's gallerist (that is such an huge mis/understatement, I wrote it hoping it would get a laugh), is staging simultaneous shows of Hirst's "spot" paintings at all 11 of his galleries around the world (New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Athens, Geneva, and Hong Kong). The exhibit is of over 300 paintings of spots; a relatively mild mannered corner of the artist's bad-boy (lad?) often gruesome and obnoxious oeuvre. The Spots are also known as "Pharmaceutical Paintings" because, many of them take their titles from psycho-active chemical substances. Still they are the unassuming Clark Kent to the dead shark's Bizarro Superman. The Spot Challenge I is a booby prize for anyone willing to race around the world to see all 11 shows (they get a card that is stamped at each location, collect them all and they get a limited edition print).
Damien Hirst; Charlie Bucket

Hirst likens the contest to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "I remember the golden tickets in Willy Wonka, maybe it's a bit like that." he says, but that is a bit disingenuous (if there is a Charlie Bucket in this story is is Hirst himself, and Saatchi was his Wonka). The Spot Challenge is a marketing device for millionaires and billionaires that more resembles a conventional cereal box-top promotion. Even stranger is The Spot Challenge Part Deux, which (if its real - being too good to be true we should not discount possibility that it is not at all true) involves a code embedded within the paintings ("a new language of Pantone dingbats"). 

The spot paintings have just enough relationship to art history for someone interested in art (admirers of color field and grid painting), and just enough douche-bag edge for someone interested in the art scene to be the perfect art product (titles like "Methamphetamine" give those Pantone dingbats pop). But what the Spot Challenges makes explicit is Hirst is also making the Spots into the perfect consumer product line; complete with a hierarchy of goods from range from multi million dollar painting to $30 mugs, and even promotional give aways. Hirst is guilty of the ultimate contemporary art world sin: "commodifying" art. Rather than act as a passive conduit for received critical theory wisdom, to unpack art as a commodity, and, in light of recent evidence (as opposed to the theories of prewar visionaries like Charles Baudelaire, or Walter Benjamin), consider what it means to make art as and for "consumerists."
Damien Hirst, Horrors at Home (1995); Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds (2010)

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