AS IT WAS, the doormen stopped the little boy getting into Sotheby’s, so no one shouted “But the emperor has no clothes!” as giddy buyers bid more than £100 million for the mass-produced works of Damien Hirst.
Indeed, there was only one tense moment at the auction. A pickled shark that had a guide price of £6 million was stuck around the £3 million mark. Think of that, a shark for just £3 million! Onlookers worried that the Hirst bubble had burst. But then a bidding war began, and a wave of applause swept the room when it finally went for £8.5 million.
I can understand the relief. Last year, Hirst produced the perfect symbol of financial excess — a platinum skull encrusted with 8,000 diamonds. The kitsch piece looked like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie but because Hirst could ask £50 million for it, the money-worshippers of the art establishment swooned. Despite that excess producing the worst banking crisis since the Thirties, despite the staff at Lehman Brothers in Canary Wharf losing their jobs on the very day the auction began, Hirst’s prices kept rising.
Not all the oligarchs and sheikhs out there can have gone bust, and I don’t mean to insult Hirst when I say that they may regret their investments. Look at what was on offer. I accept that putting a shark in formaldehyde was an innovative idea but its shock value has dulled with repetition. As for the rest, if you saw Hirst’s butterfly pictures in a gift shop, you wouldn’t think of buying them, while his more decorative work looks like the patterns on cheap wrapping paper.
Why are they selling when all around Hirst asset prices are collapsing? The rather magnificent Stuckist movement of figurative artists has a simple explanation: the art establishment in London has been dominated for too long by an in-group which favours only the conceptual art of Hirst and his colleagues.
All outsiders claim the system is rigged against them and that who you know matters more than what you do — but the Stuckists have a point. The Turner Prize nearly always goes to conceptual artists. Their friend and patron, Sir Nicholas Serota, has been in charge of the Tate for 21 years. As the Stuckist sculptor Nigel Konstam says: “Few dictators have lasted so long or been able to implement their policies so completely. Sir Nicholas has presided over a monoculture more complete than any other European nation.”
A touch over the top but basically right. The ruling clique has been in power for decades and persuaded the public to think the art it favours is the only art worth having. Sir Nicholas can’t last for ever. One day he will retire, hopefully to be a replaced by a truth-telling little boy. When he goes, the price of sharks will crash as fast as Lehman Brothers’ shares.
YEARS AGO I held a grudge Tony Blair – maybe over the private finance initiative, maybe over an assault on civil liberties, one forgets, one forgets. Anyway, I cornered Lord Whitty, the former general secretary of the Labour Party, and demanded, “How can we get rid off Blair?”
Whitty bore this assault on his leader with composure. “You can’t,” he replied, “it is constitutionally impossible.”
“How can you be so sure?’ I asked with a Paxmanian sneer.”
“Because…because…Because I wrote the bloody constitution!”
He was right. In theory, the Labour rebels are destined to fail. In practice, Gordon Brown should be very afraid. When political annihilation stares MPs in the face, constitutions become worthless pieces of paper and yesterday’s impossibility becomes today’s necessity.
THE BEST satire of acting since The Producers, opens in London on Friday. Tropic Thunder, in which Ben Stiller leads a team of fading stars making a Vietnam War movie, is merciless in its destruction of thespian pretension. My favourite character was Robert Downey Jr, who spoofs Russell Crowe and Daniel Day Lewis’s obsessive method acting and grandiosely declares, “I don’t read the script. The script reads me.” Much of the dialogue is so filthy we can’t quote it. But this snippet will give you a taste. The evil producer in Hollywood decides he will make more money if he turns a hill tribe armed with real weapons loose on the actors and secretly films the carnage. “Now let me get this straight,” asks an agent. “You want me to let my client of 15 years, one of my best friends, die in the jungle alone, for some money and a G5?”
Agent [pause]: “A G5 airplane?”
WATCHING THE importuning beggars and even more desperate writers go by the Coach and Horses on Monday I thought that Soho remained reassuringly sleazy, despite the best efforts of the Groucho Club to move it upmarket. I didn’t know then about the plans to doll-up Chinatown on the other side of Shatesbury Avenue with pagodas and secret gardens and other tourist enticers. Now that I do, I hope the recession kills them. It is to London’s credit that you can still find cheap meals and earthy company next to the most expensive real estate in the world. Prettify Soho and you destroy it.