The Case of the Twelve Million Dollar Shark

Tyler Cowen and Andrew are having a strange non-conversation about that stuffed shark that some purveyor of the post-tragically hip scooped up for a cool dozen Ms.

The dead shark cost $12 million to buy but, of course, it didn’t cost nearly that much to make. […] For the most part, it’s money passing back and forth from one set of hands to another, like a game — and, yes, the game is fun for those who have the money to play it. Don’t laugh, but we do in fact need some means of determining which of the rich people are the cool ones, and the art market surely serves that end. — Tyler

Focusing on the shark misses the point: conceptual art emphasized the idea over the object, and the art market responded by commodifying the idea. When the rich buy artwork, they may be buying their way into a select group of the “cool” rich but they are also asserting their understanding of contemporary art. That most people wouldn’t buy a $12 million stuffed shark, even if they had the money, is part of the allure. — Andrew

Erm, yes, but ‘conceptual’ art jumped its own shark when it became as aggressively anti-conceptual as it did, what with drawings studiously erased by their makers debuting in galleries leading eventually to exploded/segmented cows. Exactly what ‘idea’ is being expressed there? None, of course, except maybe Death, which is the original anti-idea when dressed up in the drag of Art. (Freud fell prey to this by remarking upon how everything turned to ‘dreck’. Zees is how ve say ‘sheet’ in Austrian.) The ultra of this fashion leads us back again to that diamond-encrusted skull, named repugnantly and blasphemously “For the Love of God.” Irony will get you nowhere in the conceptual art game when you ‘parody’ consumerism by welding a hundred millions worth of jewels to some poor sod’s actual head from the turn of the 18th century. It’s easy to pick on Damien Hearst, but that’s his problem, not mine, and anyway the real targets here are the effete, nihilist freaks lampooned to soul-crushing effect in Radiohead’s almost unlistenable Hail to the Thief dirge “We Suck Young Blood.” But Beck had them slightly beat back in 1998:

These withered hands
Have dug for a dream
Sifted through sand and leftover nightmares
Over the hill, a desolate wind
Turns shit to gold and blows my soul crazy

The end, o the end
We live again
O i grow weary of the end

O hungry days! In the footsteps of fools
Gazing alone through sex-painted windows
Dredging the night, drunk libertines
Stink like a colognes from the newfangled wasteland…

The premise of Hearstlike ‘high concept’ art, and the Hollywood Freaks who shell out for it, is that any concept, no matter how high, reduces morbidly and horrendously to shit; art becomes, at best, a grotesque kind of meth-basement alchemy that turns the shit of the ‘disenchanted’ world to gold. Yabba dabba doo.