When the story of these dark and troubled days comes to be written, a historian might well begin with the two-day sale of dead butterflies and pickled animals held at Sotheby’s in September. The carnage made a record £95.7 million for artist Damien Hirst. A cabinet of fish skeletons and stuffed fish (£2.95 million) had the title Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, words that have a resonance no historian worth his First at Balliol could ignore.
The writer might be tempted to begin this history earlier. Perhaps in 2004, when the hedgefund broker Steve Cohen paid £12 million for a third of a ton of shark that was already showing signs of decay (Cohen paid another $100,000 to restore his dead fish). Or the moment last year when the famous diamond encrusted skull was revealed to a worshipful art world. But I would advise the historian to focus on Hirst’s The Golden Calf, with a gold disc on its head and hoofs made of real gold.
Ah, the god of gold. On the day that Wall Street recorded its greatest losses ever, the British Museum unveiled a 110lb solid gold statue of the model Kate Moss. The museum described Marc Quinn’s sculpture as the ‘Aphrodite of our times’.
As citizens throughout the land were trembling in fear for their jobs, pensions and savings, the National Portrait Gallery launched a public appeal to raise £200,000 for another Quinn sculpture: a self-portrait head made of the artist’s own frozen blood. In fact, the head costs £350,000, but the Art Fund has offered a £100,000 grant and the National Portrait Gallery has found £50,000 from its own resources.
And on the day that Iceland went bankrupt, Charles Saatchi opened his new gallery in the 205-year-old Duke of York’s grand military headquarters. The exhibition features art from China, including a giant turd on the floor, packed with toy soldiers.
Never has art so painfully imitated life: art-world greed reflected in the mirror of financial world greed, the con artists in the City and on Wall Street setting the stage for the con artists of the art world. I’m as ashamed of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund (of which I am a life member) for their complicity in the fatuous and greed-crazed art world, as I am of the leaders of the banking world who have destroyed their institutions and devastated the lives of so many men and women.
Decadence on this scale leaves a bitter taste. It also has terrible side effects. Money spent on dismal, fraudulent and dead art means that the rare and genuine gets neglected. In the middle of last week’s turmoil, I saw an exhibition in Leeds Art Gallery.
Entitled ‘Whistlejacket & Scrub: Large as Life’, it features the horse paintings of Stubbs. It isn’t vast like the exhibition at the Tate in 1985, but it unites for the first time in 250 years two great paintings: Whistlejacket, one of Britain’s most loved works, saved for the nation by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1997, and Scrub, Whistlejacket’s brother, and the only one of
Stubb’s life-size portraits of horses still owned privately.
This exhibition, the brainchild of Sir Nicholas Brooksbank, very nearly didn’t happen. The sponsor, a property developer in Leeds, began feeling the tremors of the financial earthquake before the ink of the catalogue was dry. But having persuaded the National Gallery to loan Whistlejacket, and Lord Halifax his newly restored Scrub, Sir Nicholas was determined that the historic reunion of the two horses would go on. These are not animals that have been embalmed and preserved by someone who does not understand nature. Stubbs’ majestic horses are inspirational animals preserved by genius. They will probably never be seen together again, but they fulfil what I yearn for in art: beautiful, and very difficult to execute. This is art with redemptive spirit. Go and gaze at Whistlejacket and Scrub and wonder how we got so lost.