In the surest sign that the worldwide economy is in the Slough of Despond right now, a Damien Hirst sculpture has just sold for less than 1 million pounds sterling. Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the contemporary art market as a whole is suffering, “with many collectors wary of making seven-figure bids for new artworks amid the global financial crisis.” Really—people are no longer staking millions of dollars on elaborately packaged investments that might turn out, at the end of the day, to be totally worthless? But why, why…?
We don’t mean to be flip, but we do see a parallel between the smoke-and-mirrors game surrounding much contemporary art evaluation and the games Wall Street was playing with “credit default swaps” and the like. A collector shelling out for a Van Gogh (if anything at all) instead of a Hirst is simply the art-world equivalent of a Wall Street investor moving his money, for the time being, into safer and more old-fashioned securities. (And of course, in many cases these collectors and investors are the same people.) The element of risk is what drives both markets during good times—and we certainly don’t hope things stay this way forever—but for the time being caution may be a necessary, if brutal, corrective.
Anyway, the collectors and the big names like Hirst will muddle through just fine; it’s the unknown, up-and-coming contemporary artists that are getting the short end of this stick. For those poor souls, it’s time to hunker down in the old mansard, drink absinthe to keep warm, and starve a little more for the sake of their art—which will have plenty of justified gloom and vitriol to fuel it until the day it becomes valuable again.
UPDATE: Of course, if you’re an intrepid art collector like Lisa Hunter, now may be just the time to throw caution to the wind. Thanks to Ms. Hunter and her estimable blog, which we just stumbled across today, for the second opinion.