The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson
Book by an economist about the contemporary art market: the book’s title refers to a piece of modern art by Damien Hirst consisting of a decomposing tiger shark floating in a vat of formaldehyde, sold for several million dollars. This example probably best exemplifies the incomprehensibility of the contemporary art world to the general public.
Modern art revolves around branding. Even professional artists and critics can’t agree on the merit of artwork, much less the millionaires who buy the work, so branding is crucial to assign it value. Famous superstar out dealers and auction houses confer legitimacy and status to an artist, and rich people buy it to display status among their peers. These pieces of art are generally not even pleasant to look at, nor do they retain value as investment vehicles, yet famous dealers like Larry Gagosian are able to sell pieces sight unseen, by recommending to a client that a particular piece is good for their collection, simply because of the exclusivity and status of the work. Branded dealers are essentially the “gatekeepers” of the art world, they represent artist on market their work at galleries, and artists gain reputation from being branded. Other ways of gaining legitimacy are being featured in a museum or an auction house like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The most famous artwork can sell for millions, but overall the art market is not that big ($20B annually at the time of writing), and out of tens of thousands of aspiring professional artists, only a few dozen will ever reach branded status.
For many contemporary artists, it is not clear what makes their art stand out, so their career paths are not easy for new artists to replicate. In the case of Damien Hirst (the floating shark artist), he is not skilled at drawing or any traditional art techniques, but after having become famous, everything that has his name on it becomes valuable, even used restaurant equipment passed as art, or signing his name on paintings drawn by unknown local artists. The author argues that his genius is the art of marketing, creating publicity by maximizing shock value.
I stopped reading this book after about 100 pages, which I felt was enough to get the gist of it. It describes the world of a small number of extremely wealthy artists, dealers, and collectors, but is ultimately not really relevant to the rest of us, and you will walk away with an increased disdain for modern art (if you did not have a disdain for it already).