Contemporary art is popular, but it’s all about money and power

One of the most expensive and (one might think) most exclusive works to buy is Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dogs. But there are so many of them! At the top of the market are five monumental balloon dogs of various colors, each worth tens of millions of dollars, which have been bought by some of the world’s wealthiest collectors, including Steve Cohen, Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou and Fran├žois Pinault.

Should your budget not be quite that high, there are smaller but much larger editions that can be found in the hundreds for a roughly $30,000 layout or in the thousands for around $9,000. The general tactic of branded mega-artists is to cover a very wide range of markets, from buyers who own a private museum to those who buy an unlimited poster edition.

This series production is closely linked to investment and the financial modeling of art prices: a potential investor can get the illusion of assured value if a similar piece has recently been sold at a certain price, making series works valuable. The unique work, of course, still has a place in the peculiar economics of the art world, but its value is unpredictable. Even seemingly unique paintings by a particular artist can effectively be part of a branded series sold for the performance of pieces of similar size and character. This explains much of the appeal of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings – and there are thousands of them.

The master

As collectors become accustomed to conventional and instrumental buying, they usually assure anyone who asks that they are buying for the love of the work and will never consider selling. And the meeting of exceptional artists and exceptional collectors is often presented as a unique moment of symbiosis.

At the time of the 2017 Venice Biennale, Hirst staged a gigantic and bombastic exhibition of objects made in variants and series, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, at two prominent locations owned by Pinault. The exhibition is said to be the salvage of a shipwreck, the collection of a legendary ancient mogul known for his boundless greed, gluttony and penchant for domination.

Pinault himself spells out the artist-collector meeting in the catalogue, claiming that Treasures represents a complete break with Hirst’s earlier work because of its excess, ambition and daring. The works “exude a sense of almost mythological power,” while the artist displays “boundless energy and awe-inspiring presence of mind” by taking dizzying risks, creating works that embrace “grace and violence in the same spirit.” The multifaceted, incredible, domineering artist is one with his collector.

One could hardly have a more frank declaration – in the work itself and in the accompanying text – of the super-rich’s antagonism to mere mortals, the arrogant affirmation of their Olympian status and their right to exploit and destroy the planet.

taste for accounting

But this ethos of extreme individualism collides with an economy of standardization in which many very wealthy but time-poor collectors follow the consistent advice of art consultants, wealth managers and interior designers. The result is a proud display of the audacity to act conventionally.

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