On September 16, even as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were collapsing, Damien Hirst was setting a new record for sales at auction by an individual artist. His private auction at Sotheby’s netted him $197.8 million.
The staggering sums accrued here, particularly against the backdrop of such a massive financial crisis, indicate a new stage in the commodification of artwork. It is to the credit of the critic Robert Hughes, therefore, that his Channel 4 programme, “The Mona Lisa Curse,” sought to explore and lay bare the ways in which the market stifles and dominates artistic endeavour.
Hughes looked at historical changes in exhibiting and selling art over the last half century. He was unafraid to give his opinion of just how bad much of this art is and how it is marketed and bought for commercial rather than aesthetic reasons.
Hughes dates the beginning of the present malaise within art and art exhibition to 1963, when the Louvre arranged to show the Mona Lisa in Paris. Hughes identifies a number of trends emerging from this moment. For the first time, people queued round the block “not to look at [the Mona Lisa], but to say that they’d seen it.” Meaning within the artwork became secondary to it as spectacle. Every generation started looking for “its” Mona Lisa, and elevating works of art to celebrity status.