Two overwhelming events occurred on September 15 and 16, 2008. The first is known to all, the second – to few — but a thread passes between them, showing the fabric of the current socio-economic and cultural system.
On September 15 Lehman Brothers investment bank filed for the largest bankruptcy in history and the next day the US government provided the $85 billion bailout for the insurance giant AIG. This was the burst of financialized delusions and financial bubbles which have been intentionally inflated during the years of neoliberalism. At that time, it seemed that a depressing worst nightmare scenario for the global economy eventually befell.
But exactly on those dates, another unprecedented event happened, but in an entirely different atmosphere. At the Sotheby’s auction in London, an artist Damien Hirst managed to shock the respective milieu with a record-breaking sale of his works for $198 million, becoming instantly the world’s richest artist. The item that attracted the most attention and the highest bid ($18 million) was “The Golden Calf” — a two-metre bull sculpture, crowned by a solid gold disc and encased in a gold-plated box on a marble base. “Hirst’s London art sale defies economic blues”, rejoiced Reuters.
These two spectacular events that took place in two Capital’s capital cities were not merely coincidence, but mutually reinforcing intertwined phenomena. While some bubbles blow up, others puff up — this is finance capitalism in a nutshell.
A notable French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard included in his book La Transparence du Mal (The Transparency of Evil, 1993) an illuminating and challenging essay “Transaesthetics”. Its final part also brilliantly connects the dots in our story, concurrently raising exclamation and question marks:
“…because an end has been put to any deference to the law of value, to the logic of commodities, everything has become ‘more expensive than expensive’ — expensive, as it were, squared. Prices are exorbitant — the bidding has gone through the roof. Just as the abandonment of all aesthetic ground rules provokes a kind of brush fire of aesthetic values, so the loss of all reference to the laws of exchange means that the market hurtles into unrestrained speculation.
The frenzy, the folly, the sheer excess are the same. The promotional ignition of art is directly linked to the impossibility of all aesthetic evaluation. In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.
There are two art markets today. One is still regulated by a hierarchy of values, even if these are already of a speculative kind. The other resembles nothing so much as floating and uncontrollable capital in the financial market: it is pure speculation, movement for movement’s sake, with no apparent purpose other than to defy the law of value. This second market has much in common with poker or potlatch — it is a kind of space opera in the hyperspace of value. Should we be scandalized? No. There is nothing immoral here. Just as present-day art is beyond beautiful and ugly, the market, for its part, is beyond good and evil.” (Baudrillard 1993: 18-19)
And what about Damien Hirst? Well, by 2009 his annual auction sales had shrunk by 93%, to $19 million, and the 2010 total revenue was even lower.
There is an end to all balloons.