40 cm Qing Vase. Image from: Wall st Journal Nov 17, 2012, $80 mil vase (cropped)
I recently watched a BBC documentary about the manufacture of Chinese porcelain during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). This porcelain was highly prized in Britain at the time and shiploads of it were sent to Europe where it was purchased and flaunted by wealthy buyers. The documentary ended with an account of the vase (pictured) which was brought to Britain during the Opium Wars, recently found in an attic, then sold for $80 million to a Chinese collector. One feature of the vase was unique even at the time it was made. Its yellow glaze was reserved for the Emperor’s eyes only.
For the Love of God, image from http://www.guardian.co.uk/
In 2007 the artist Damien Hirst made a sculpture – “For the Love of God” – which cost him £14 million to produce and which he reputedly sold for £50 million. This sculpture is a diamond encrusted platinum skull with real teeth. There is a ‘Vanitas’ tradition in western art which uses the reference to the skull to remind the audience that life is short and that vanity can never outlast death.
The documentary had me thinking about the extent to which artworks attempt, deliberately or not, to achieve this twin prize of exclusivity and expense, and sacrifice fulfilling art’s main function – to convey something relevant and interesting about contemporary life. Shakespeare and Rembrandt are good examples of artists that have produced work that has gained great value by remaining relevant and interesting for hundreds of years. Rembrandt’s sequence of self-portraits, from when he was young through to old age, are a much more powerful message about the frailty of life than Damian Hirst’s work and are still powerfully revealing. It is interesting to note that at the time of his later and particularly moving portraits of old age he was in poverty and almost without a reputation.
While it might be possible to claim that both of the the skull and vase are beautiful I personally regard them both as gaudy, pretentious and unappealing with nothing to say to contemporary audiences apart from their pretentious claim of value through uniqueness. Reviewers have said that Hirst’s ‘artwork’ lay in the publicity surrounding the production and sale of the skull, and that this has provoked discussion (like this) about what art does. I choose the view that Hirst was engaged in market manipulation and branding for his own purposes and that his “look at what I can do” narcissism outweighs any other interest the work could have.
Branding is an integral part of all of our lives. The cars we drive, music we listen to and clothes we wear are all at least partly chosen to provide a description of us in order to display what we value. (I confess with some embarassment to taking great pleasure and pride in being the owner and driver of a Lada at one time. The kids didn’t share my enthusiasm.) The art we make, buy and live with always makes a claim about who we are or want to be seen as. It is an interesting exercise to try to imagine what these accessories convey about the value system of both the maker and the owner.