Posted by: davidlarkin | July 28, 2008

The Twenty Million Dollar Golden Calf

Damien Hirst’s latest creation — a bull submerged in formaldehyde, with a head crowned by a solid-gold disc, and hooves and horns cast in 18-karat gold — is expected to fetch $16 million to $24 million when it is sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London on Sept. 15. “The Golden Calf,” above, with the artist, will be part of a two-day auction of works made by Mr. Hirst in the last two years, Sotheby’s announced on Thursday. In addition to the bull, the auctions on Sept. 15 and 16 will include some of his new paintings, drawings and sculptures. This is the second time Sotheby’s has held an all-Hirst auction. In 2004 it sold the contents of the Pharmacy, his defunct Notting Hill restaurant, which included Hirst-designed ashtrays and bar stools, as well as his paintings, for $20 million. Last summer Mr. Hirst’s human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 diamonds was said to have been sold to an investment group for $100 million.

New York Times, July 20, 2008.

The official offering of the Golden Calf with pictures is set forth in the Sothebys Press Release.

At the Sotheby’s auction in September 2008, the Golden Calf sold for $18.6 million.

Hirst’s 2007 Shark in Formaldehyde resulted in a big pay day,

catching the attention of editorialists. In an editorial, The New York Times had this to say about his dead shark floating in formaldehyde, and what the high prices mean for art:

In August, the shark in formaldehyde — Damien Hirst’s signature work — will come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan from Steven A. Cohen, a hedge fund trader and art collector. Mr. Hirst’s shark, whose proper name is “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” is usually called a piece of conceptual art. So when you go to visit the shark (actually the second to be entombed in this vitrine) it will be worth considering the entire scope of the conceptualism surrounding it.

First, you will have to shelve any objections you might have to the idea of killing a female tiger shark in the interests of Mr. Hirst’s career. You might even wonder whether the catching of the shark, somewhere off the coast of Australia, wasn’t in its own way more artful than the shark’s lamentable afterlife suspended in formaldehyde.

But the real concepts here are money and reputation. It may appear as if Mr. Cohen is doing the Met a favor by lending this work. In fact, it is the other way around. The billionaire, number 85 on the most recent Forbes 400 has been collecting art at a furious rate since 2000, and he is being courted by museums in the way that prodigiously wealthy collectors have always been courted. Part of that courtship is, of course, endorsing and validating the quality of the collector’s eye. The only defense against the skewing of the art market created by collecting on Mr. Cohen’s scale is to appropriate the collector himself.

The difference in this case is Mr. Hirst, who has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art. No artist has managed the escalation of prices for his own work quite as brilliantly as Mr. Hirst. That is the real concept in his conceptualism, which has culminated in his most recent artistic farce: a human skull encrusted in diamonds.

You may think you are looking at a dead shark in a tank, but what you’re really seeing is the convergence of two careers, the coming together of two masters in the art of the yield.

Art critics complain that the aesthetic choices and the high prices for this type of contemporary art cheapens art. The New Republic’s long-time art critic, Jed Perl, considers work like Hirst’s to be junk, art reduced to mere commercial product. He labels the declining standard as laissez-faire aesthetics in his article, Postcards from Nowhere:

. . . I find it interesting that many commentators are far more eager to criticize the collectors and the dealers than the art stars who produce this junk in the first place. Can it be that even the most vapid machine-tooled work is still covered by the old romantic alibi, namely that the muses made me do it? The woes of the art world cannot be blamed entirely on the rapacity of a cadre of collectors, dealers, and curators. After all, it was an artist, Damien Hirst, who dreamed up the platinum replica of a human skull, paved with diamonds, that was first exhibited last year in London in a show called “Beyond Belief.”

It is the artists, and a certain line of thinking about art, that have given the people with the cash permission to buy and sell what amounts to nothing, and to do so for ever larger and more insane sums of money. All this sensational commerce is fueled by the anti-aesthetics that were born nearly a century ago among the Dadaists, and have by now morphed into the laissez-faire aesthetics that give collectors sanction to regard one of Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel balloon animals as simultaneously a camp joke and a modern equivalent of a Tang dynasty horse. (A critic in The New York Times described one of these glistening metal doggies, currently on display on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a “masterpiece.”) The artists involved–beginning with Duchamp and including Rauschenberg, Warhol, Salle, and Koons–celebrate, or toy with, a number of apparently contradictory thoughts: that art is nothing; that art can be anything; that randomness and order are the same thing; that art has no particular place in the world; that art can be found anyplace in the world; that art is just another commercial product, like tennis balls and washing machines.

Postcards from Nowhere – Jed Perl – TNR.

With The Golden Calf, surely tongue in cheek, Hirst chooses a reference from the Bible for his title, referring of course, to the idol created by Aaron for the children of Israel while Moses delayed on the Mount while God delivered the Ten Commandments to him. He is not afraid to comment on religion, and Christianity in particular, with his art. His 2007 show in a London Church was titled New Religion, and featured feet bleeding from nail wounds and this work titled The Holy Trinity, for example.

[More about Hirst at Artsy Damien Hirst Page]

When Hirst chooses to enter into the spiritual arena, he opens the door to spiritual interpretation. In The Brothers Kamarazov, Dostoyevski considers art as a spiritual battlefield:

Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Kamarazov

Even if you don’t believe in the devil, it is easy to make a claim that the devil is at work in art works, purposely devilish, who would inspire an artist to put a crucifix in a jar of urine, i.e., Piss Christ, the 1989 photograph by Andres Serano, or that otherwise make light of a religious icon or the Holy Trinity, as Hirst does.

Personally, I worry for the fate of the artist rather than suffer any injury from a work like this. There may be a relationship between death by natural causes and blasphemy or disrespect for the living God. But that would be a personal concern of the artist, not mine, other than my God-given charitable concern for the artist’s fate which leads to intercession and prayer rather than outrage.

I remember while waiting for a airline flight in Las Vegas back in the 80s, I noticed Sam Kinison was also waiting for the same flight. Kinison was a fundamentalist pentecostal preacher as a child, and, at the time we were waiting for the flight, his comedy act featured authentic blasphemy. I remember cringing at the sincerity of his blasphemy and worried that he might be struck by lightning right here on our stage. Some of his religious humor was actually funny, as when he imitated one of Jesus brothers complaining to the Virgin Mary “Stop asking me why I can’t be like my brother Jesus.” Nevertheless, waiting for the plane, I considered changing planes because I was afraid God might take Sam and the rest of us. Then, I noticed he was traveling with his mother and I had read, probably in Rolling Stone, that his mother still prayed for him. So, I decided that with his mother on board, the flight was likely a safe one. Despite the dearth of real evidence, the flight obviously made it to the destination. I have since heard from a client that claims to have sat in the audience at Sam’s shows with Sam’s mother, that Sam’s mother drank whiskey during the shows, laughing with the audience at his blasphemous comedy. Of course, she may have prayed the mornings after nursing a hangover.

I recently read that the Apostle John, the author of the Gospel of John and the Revelation in the Bible, had a similar experience. Eusebius writes in his History of the Church, Chapter XXVIII, about a time when entering a public bath, St. John saw Cerinthus, a notorious heretic and enemy of Christ, enjoying a bath and feared catastrophic collapse of the roof of the bath:

But Irenæus, in the first book of his work Against Heresies, gives some more abominable false doctrines of the same man, and in the third book relates a story which deserves to be recorded. He says, on the authority of Polycarp, that the apostle John once entered a bath to bathe; but, learning that Cerinthus was within, he sprang from the place and rushed out of the door, for he could not bear to remain under the same roof with him. And he advised those that were with him to do the same, saying, “Let us flee, lest the bath fall for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”

John also is the author of three epistles or letters in the New Testament. The first, referred to as 1 John, is a response to the gnostic heresy attributed to Cerinthus.

In April 1992, six days after Sam Kinison married his girlfriend Malika, he was killed when his white Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was struck on U.S. Route 95 four miles north of Interstate 40 and several miles west of Needles, California by a pickup truck driven by a 17-year-old who had been drinking. Kinison was 38. Kinison was later found to have cocaine, Valium, Xantac and codeine in his bloodstream. Sam Kinison’s last words when he was fatally injured in the automobile accident were in a conversation with someone who wanted Sam to go with him, and Sam objected, before giving in:

“He said, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,'” recounted his best friend, Carl LaBove, who held Kinison’s bleeding head in his hands.

Kinison paused, as if listening to a voice that couldn’t be heard, LaBove said.

“But why?” asked Kinison, a former Pentecostal preacher. It sounded, LaBove said, as if “he was having a conversation, talking to somebody else. He was talking upstairs. Then I heard him go, ‘OK, OK, OK.”The last “OK” was so soft and at peace… whatever voice was talking to him gave him the right answer, and he just relaxed with it. He said it so sweet, like he was talking to someone he loved.”

The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, April 12, 1992

From his public work, Kinison portrayed himself as someone who did not love God. Hopefully, it was just an act, and God forgave him for it. Or, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then he was just dreaming in vain before passing into oblivion. We look through a glass darkly relying on beliefs we make, we take, or we are given.

No question that superstition makes life interesting. I remember reading about one of the members of the entourage who traveled with the Beatles on the plane from London to New York when the Beatles first invaded the U.S. He said they were such a big deal that he knew he was safe on that plane, it would never crash with the Beatles on board. We just get these ambiguous feelings about fate, don’t we, regardless of whether we have a particular religious belief or not.

How would Dostoyevski’s character categorize the current trend in contemporary art which avoids the prominent historical artistic endeavor to create beautiful things, to create clever, often ugly things, which may shock or stun with their appearance or even their cleverness? Is this where God and the devil are fighting? If it is “beauty”, then it is. These works are grabbed by hedge fund managers cum art collectors/investors at prices formerly paid for purchase of successful businesses and prime commercial real estate. With these prices, there seems to be more going on here than a battle between God and the Devil — between devils, perhaps. When the art turns to mocking religion or God, then clearly Dostoyevski’s character would find a battle between God and the Devil with the Devil’s minion artist facing perhaps a work of God in his future.

Ed Kienholz was an American artist perhaps best described as a Pop Assemblage and Installation Artist. He assembled objects together to create works, like a diorama in the natural history museum, but manifesting a vulgar or profane vision. In 1965, Kienholz created a tribute to Columbo’s hang-out, West Hollywood dive “Barney’s Beanery.”

and the following year, Kienholz’s famous tribute to his adolescence, Back Seat Dodge ’38, now installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Towards the end of his career, collaborating with his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, his work expressed his apparent contempt for American life. As described in an Art in America article:

The hypocritical excesses of a media-hound like Tammy Bakker clearly propelled the Kienholz rancor into deep space. In All Have Sinned in Room 323 (1992), a female mannequin in an easy chair masturbates beneath a portrait of the smirking evangelist while watching a pathetic Ken and Barbie doll orgy on TV. Incensed by the sanctimonious American patriotism of recent years, the Kienholzes present in My Country Tis of Thee (1991) a quartet of pantsless politician-mannequins who surround a pork barrel in a daisy chain. In this good-old-boy conspiracy, each man has his right hand on his heart while his left, behind him, clutches his neighbor’s penis.

With his not unreasonable disdain for televangelists, he was unable to separate the message of Jesus in Scripture with the charlatans who profited from his name. His last work was a large wall installation 76 J.C.’s Led the Big Charade (1994), which consists of “76 crucifixes whose bases are made from the rusted metal handles of toy wagons. Glued atop the crucifixes are kitsch prints of Jesus, ranging in mood from anguished suffering to smarmy cuteness.” Art in America, June 1995.

Shortly after installing 76 J.C.’s, on June 10, 1994, Kienholz died of a heart attack. In accordance with his instructions, he was buried

. . . in Hope, Idaho, was the artist’s ultimate act of staged outrage. As a tape deck played a loop of Glenn Miller hits, a 1940 Packard was driven by the artist’s wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, down a ramp and into a freshly dug grave. Kienholz’s body was seated in the passenger seat of the Packard, which was buried with him.

I do not believe that Kienholz’s contempt for the tarnished and mammon-linked public face of contemporary Christianity resulted in divine punishment by heart attack. But his turn to the anti-religious motif at the end of his life is an expression of a spiritual emptiness and despair that is cause for pause at his sudden death.

Damien Hirst, on the other hand, likely has a long career ahead of him at these prices. I have no information or prophetic inclination to believe that he will be struck dead soon. However, he cannot capitalize on satirical religious pieces without eventually boring his rich patrons and falling out of favor. He certainly will have plenty of capital to work with when he does fall out of favor, if he does.

But despite the similar choice of title, can you fairly compare Hirst’s Golden Calf with the Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin, hanging in the British National Gallery. Are either of these works beautiful? The battle ensues.

[click on the painting for a full screen view]


  1. Good post. I’m not sure though that you understand Hirst’s work properly. I AM sure that I don’t understand his work fully, and it’s probable that he doesn’t intend his work to be ‘understood.’ Nonetheless, contemporary art often attempts to seek truth through creating. Putting all the issues about obnoxious amounts of money aside, Hirst’s art often seeks to work through the meeting place of science and religion, faith and reason. His work is a metaphor for the greater struggle that contemporary culture has in trying to reconcile these different approaches to life. Seeing his work from this vantage point, I don’t understand why people see his work as blasphemous of satirical. For example I think the ‘Holy Trinity’ piece might be a mostly genuine attempt to work through how to think about the doctrine of the Trinity in a science-based worldview. All the issues of money involved simply further shed light (prophetically?) on the strangeness of contemporary life. Why do we so highly value a golden calf? It’s not a satire that I think offends God. More likely, I think it’s a satire that offends us because we realize the difficulties of how science and religion compete in our minds and how screwed up economic disparity is. But I can’t seem to wrap my mind around why people think it’s blasphemous.

    • Thanks for your comment. We seem to disagree about what is blasphemous, or whether something that might be blasphemous is good for the artist, and his audience. It is easy to make light of the trinity as Hirst did. I was not offended, thought it was clever and humorous personally, though I wouldn’t speak for God as you do. The question is whether it is blasphemous to make light of the Holy as Hirst did. To the extent that it leads people to underestimate the Holy, then it is clearly dangerous, and likely sinful, even though done in jest or to make a point about science and religion.

      If art is a matter of “cleverness” then Hirst is quite an artist. You seem to elevate the cleverness aspect by his art being a metaphor or comment on current culture. It is like an editorial. However, if art is “creation,” then it is not clear whether this is inspired art, rather than technical manipulation of symbols in a professional and clever way to make a statement. I am not one who is so conservative to disregard modern media because it is not a painting or a sculpture. I just visited the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum complex. I was very much impressed with Jeff Koons work which I had never seen in person. Nevertheless, it is empty of spirit, other than the spirit of a materialism that is not really spirit, but despair, rational, but desperately looking for meaning. I am sure I would be impressed with Hirsts work in person, but whether it is great art is another question. I love some pop music, but I don’t think it compares with some of the great music of the past, including some early path-brreaking rock and roll.

      My concern about blasphemy is actually directed at the artist and his relationship with God. The works I described and included that I spoke of being perhaps blasphemous demonstrated a person who was not concerned about his relationship with God or Christ, which is in my opinion, very dangerous, and to the extent that the work leads others to disregard or denigrate the Holy, it is irresponsible to so mislead others.

      Anyway, I appreciate your comments and that you were interested in what I wrote.

  2. This is a fascinating discussion Dave. You might be interested in knowing that
    Michel Houllebecq’s “La Carte et le territorie” deals begins with a disillusioned painter
    working purely for money, who paints a sterile and stylized portrait of Koons and Hirst discussing their profits in Abu Dhabi. Houllebecq’s work, on the surface cynical, is highly spiritual.

    • Thanks, Norm. Is Houllebecz’s work translated into English?

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