Well here we are...the end of Planet Finance

essay published in Broadsheet Vol. 38.1, 2009 and Art Monthly (UK) Issue 327, June 2009

Chanel is pulling its flagship sponsorship project for contemporary art. A newspaper story (the Guardian 29 Dec 2008) describes how in the face of fears that the 'supposedly recession proof luxury market' is falling victim to the credit crisis, the perfume and handbag company is not only shedding 200 jobs but bringing its highly publicized global art installation 'Mobile Art' to an early end for fears that this 'quirky marketing operation' has become a luxury that the brand could no longer support.

Architect of choice for the Art World, Zaha Hadid teamed up with Karl Lagerfield and Chanel to create a futuristic pavilion designed to travel for two years throughout Asia, the United States and Europe. The legendary Mademoiselle Chanel herself, publicity reminded us, had in the past supported the likes of Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Jacques Lipchitz, and now twenty contemporary artists including Daniel Buren, Blue Noses - (the 'rascals of Russian contemporary arts' apparently) Sylvie Fleury, Sophie Calle, Yang Fudong, Subdoh Gupta, Yoko Ono and Wim Delvoy, had been commissioned to collaborate with the fashion house to make work where 'all of the pieces will be conceived in relation to one of Chanel's most emblematic accessories - the quilted handbag.' The intention was that 'resulting from their singular points of view - poetic, audacious and as yet unseen - the multiple facets of this mythical bag and its universe are revealed.' An intention that would make it 'a revolutionary event, uniting one of the greatest architects of our time, some of our most innovative artists, and an icon of the fashion world - the quilted bag.' The Project 'reaffirms once more our (Chanel's) devotion to creativity and to the avant-garde' and exemplifies how the company is 'a modern brand' that is 'constantly moving forward, cultivating the extraordinary and its innate sense of the moment, CHANEL is resolutely open to the world and turning towards the future. It is this propulsion that incites CHANEL to perpetually create surprise, from one continent to the next, and to so deeply impact on our collective imaginary consciousness.'

The plug was pulled two stops into the global tour. It had been launched in Hong Kong and took up residence in Central Park New York, but never made it to London and the other global cultural - and financial - capitals of its tour. 'Considering the current economic crisis,' a spokesman said, 'we decided it was best to stop the project.' Instead, 'we will be concentrating on strategic growth investments.' (Vogue Magazine 22 Dec 2008).

'The producers of the abysmal 1998 movie Lost In Space should sue for copyright against the spacecraft, Jupiter II,' wrote Rob Dawg on zahahadidblog after his first sight of the plans for the Chanel building, and Hadid's design does closely echo the weird organic shapes of futuristic alien technologies and flying saucers as imagined by Hollywood. And vice-versa, which is probably a convergence of computer software. And the ship's sudden return to earth makes it an early manifestation of the vast quantities of space-debris that we can expect to crash down around our ears as a result of the spectacular break up 'Planet Finance'. It is a Roswell moment, when Hadid's sci-fi pavilion, its 'propulsion to create surprise' suddenly exhausted, becomes the junk of an alien civilization, stranded, earthbound. Its corpses and culture are laid out in front of us. Inanimate. Dead. And looking sort of weird and fake.

'Planet Finance' is the name given by groovy rightwing academic, Neil Ferguson, to the vast financial sphere that has overshadowed our universe for the last few decades. He describes how in 2006, the measured economic output of the entire world was some $48.6 trillion, but the total market capitalisation of the world's stock markets was $50.6 trillion, 4 percent larger than the stuff of the world and the total value of domestic and international bonds was $67.9 trillion, 40 percent larger ('Wall Street lays another egg' Vanity Fair December 2008). Planet Finance was not only bigger than Planet Earth, it was faster. Every day $3.1 trillion changed hands on foreign-exchange markets and very month $5.8 trillions traded on global stock markets. In its swampy atmosphere (made up, it might be hypothesised, of gaseous testosterone, cocaine, Porsche exhaust and swirly-eyed lip-smacking greed) new financial life-forms evolved. The total annual issuance of mortgage-backed securities, including the seductive new 'collateralised debt obligations' (C.D.O.'s), rose to more than $1 trillion. The volume of 'derivatives' - contracts such as options and swaps - grew even faster and by the end of 2006 their notional value was just over $400 trillion. With its growth the structures and logics of this new planet increasingly became the dominant ones here on earth. 'The Market' became the paradigm that shaped every activity and undertaking. Planet Finance's masters of the Universe became the masters of our world and we lesser beings subservient to their appetite and needs.

Contemporary Art had a particular and precious place in this new intergalactic culture, and its artifacts have provided a bridge between the previous values and narratives of the older, smaller, planet and the ideals and aspirations of this new stellar civilization. Art has always had an intimate relationship with the rich and the rulers of the world, both temporal and spiritual, and its attraction to our new extra-terrestial masters was precisely its occult intimacy with power that has stretched across different civilizations and periods of human activity. Contemporary art helped validate and sanctify these new electric structures. Art was the symbol that spoke of the mystical power of the über-commodity: a special sort of object - or action - that transcended the mundane to translate us into glorious heavenly vortexes of Platonic value. Which is why artists - possibly after having been kidnapped, anally probed, and their brains scrubbed clean by space technology to remove primitive ideas of worth and value, not to mention a sense of the ridiculous and the unseemly - found themselves happily making work about a padded handbag in a pavilion designed for space travel.

By some happy numerological quirk of fate, on the same day that Lehman Brothers was collapsing, Sotheby's in London was half-way through a two day event, one of the most notorious contemporary art auctions seen in this (or the last) century. Damien Hirst was selling off 223 new works made by his numerous assistants over the last two years to eager buyers. Shockingly, for the commercial art world, the sale was not through his dealers, which is the normal way of flogging art, with carefully vetted collectors and where contacts are nurtured and developed. Instead it was through an Auction House, where there are far fewer boundaries between the artifact and punters with the desire to 'invest'. When the auction was first planned it seemed a very good time for such an event. From October 2004 onwards, according to ArtTactic research, the 'Hirst market had seen an average increase in prices of 207%, or a 39% annual compound return', and under the gavel, if you have the cash - or credit - you're a player and then it's just a matter of bulking up to have a wad big enough to beat any other person who is also after what you want. The simple logics of the Market prevail to determine 'value' rather than it being arrived at through arcane alchemies by secretive cabals of dealers, museums critics and collectors. Hirst has a manager called Frank Dunphy whose previous experience was in the world of circuses rather than the art world so he doesn't give a hoot for its structures. He was at one time, gloriously, Coco the Clown's accountant - a job not without honour - and also represented all of the world's jugglers. He and Damien met over a pool table in a London private members' club and he likes auctions because they are so democratic. 'You bring your money along,' he said to Waldemar Januszczak (Times Sept 7 2007), 'you put your hand up and you've got it.' His passion was conceived a few years ago when he decided to auction the contents of Hirst's restaurant, the Pharmacy, which was going out of business, and watched with astonishment as people 'started bidding hundreds of pounds for a used restaurant glass.' From the artist's point of view, an auction also has a strong attraction, as it considerably reduces the cut of the middleman: a commercial gallery selling a work will normally take between 40 - 50% of the sale price in commission, not so with auction houses. Until brave Damien came along and proved that they weren't worth the paper they were written on, there was an unspoken agreement between the auction houses and the commercial galleries where the galleries would handle the recent work, and the auction houses take care of the older stuff. The demarcation line between 'old' and 'new' was traditionally defined as being some five years back, but as the markets speeded up it closed to a two year gap. But Damien has abolished even this. It is a sign of how perfectly of his time Hirst is that much of the journalism about the auction focused not on the art but precisely on how he had innovated new financial and commercial structures. 'But like all modern visionaries, Hirst saved his greatest innovations for the marketplace itself,' wrote He took risks, cut out middle men, maximised returns and presented examples of the best of his signature lines - the animals in formaldehyde, the spotty paintings, the spin paintings, shiny shelves of drugs etc - so maximising opportunity for those wanting to buy into Brand Damien. The auction was widely described in newspaper finance pages in the aspirational, thrusting, frontier poetry of the share prospectus, and it is significant for Brand Hirst that Damien is a boysy stubbly unaffected down-to-earth-guy, a bit wild, a bit of a chancer, a jack the lad, not a snob or stuck up. Last year the Cambridge Judge Business School analysed the demographics of City Traders to discover that the person handling billions and billions of funds and making millions in fees was most likely to be a 26 year old white male. These last decades have been built on the actions of young men taking hazy testosterony risks for shed loads of money and Damien is the sort of guy a city culture can understand and identify with. As these 26 year olds get to be a little older they become his market. He makes work about money, and he makes money, and is therefore value embodied. His career has bracketed the period - now ending - that has seen more of these millionaires buy and sell more art than at any other time in history. It is difficult to have a proper contemporary art collection without a Damien, as collections are no longer about individual interest or taste but operate as symbols that prove that you are a possessor of taste, that you like what other people like, are part of a group - a group that shapes and is shaped by the market. So you start off with a little formaldehyde, a dot painting perhaps, and then another, or perhaps get a drug cabinet thingy, then maybe add a Richard Prince Nurse or car, a Koons, a Nauman maybe and yes we'll have a voi bloody la ...something to add to the yacht, the blonde and the Bugatti and harbourside waterview apartment.

And buy in they did. There was much sucking of teeth before the days of sale as to how the downturn was going to bugger this up, how Damien was going to become a schadenfreude cropper, but no, the stubble cheeky-chappy shark-pickler pulled through, making even more than had been projected from his sales to secretive Russian Oligarchs, precious plutocrats, shy hedge-fund managers, and no doubt galleries and dealers with a stake in Damien, desperately eager to prevent a slip in the auction value.of his work. The sale made the artist some £98 million pounds, a world record for an artist (but a small profit in the financial trader worlds of his buyers).

Slavoj Zizek in his paperback 'Violence', talks of the 'phatic' function of language, which is its use to maintain and describe social relations though ritualised formulae such as greetings, chit chat about the weather. Roman Jakobson, who developed the idea liked to quote this dialogue from Dorothy Parker:

'Well, here we are' he said.
'Here we are' she said. Aren't we?'
'I should say we are' he said."
'The emptiness of contact thus has a propitious technical function as a test of the system itself: a 'Hello do you hear me?' writes Zizek 'The phatic function is therefore close to the meta-linguistic function: it checks whether the channel is working. Simultaneously, the addresser and addressee check whether they are using the same code.

' Hirst's work shares this emptiness of the 'here we are': each product in the auction represents a line of manufacture in his practice and each line of manufacture serves to sketch out, in the simplest and most general terms comprehensible even to a young dazed dealer, burnt out hedge-funder or Oligarch's partner, what 'art' (in general) might be 'about': beit 'Death and mortality (pickled thing)' or 'Spinning Colour and Abstract Painting', 'beauty and butterflies' or 'Big shiny expensive attractive object of no other function'. These prove and test the channels of Value and Exchange, the poetics of marketisation and commodification that are the new code for the machine, the mechanisms that run this new planet. All the diverse operations of the art world over the decades of Planet Finance have ultimately had one end; the glorification of the ideal of Private Property.

That this art in the end represents only itself and the functions of value rather than any complex alternative religious, moral, immoral or political sphere (as art used to claim to) supports perhaps Alain Badiou's proposal that we live in a social space in late capitalism that is progressively 'worldless'. Planet Finance, is without a worldview of its own, and there is not a 'global capitalist civilisation', rather it operates in and across all civilisations: Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, East or West. Its global dimension can only be expressed through the 'Real' of the global market mechanism. Certainly the Contemporary Art now being produced by and exchanged in the new markets of China and India is largely undifferentiated from the global forms of 'Contemporary Art Fair Art.'

Contemporary Art didn't have a good boom and its going to be interesting to see how its going to cope with the bust. When I write that it didn't have a good boom I also need to write that it had an extraordinary and orgasmically brilliant boom, the best boom that it has ever had (But it's still a question as to how its going to cope with the bust). Its boom as bad and good because it got sucked up into this glorious new planet and bathed in a golden shower of cash. It was feted and lauded and has perhaps never been so desired and valued (even if they didn't quite know why). Art became a locus of aspiration for so many people. And it has sort of lost its head, its sense of its direction, was seduced by the big end of town, the big end of history. After all, before, if you were a member of what was called the avant-garde, it was all going to be cold dank warehouses and the respect of your probably hirsute peers: but in this new world art slowly came to represent models of innovation (models which could not be applied elsewhere but what the heck, that helped keep the damn thing pure) and glamour, and ineffable value. It was housed in American Express Halls, Chanel Pavilions and Oligarchs' hallways. Far nicer places than before with far better food: and let's face it, frequented by a better class of person. And Art has become very comfortable there. The only 'avant-gardist' movement that the visual arts has generated since the deregulation of the banks has been 'relational aesthetics' with its weedily modest exploration of how 'art' might echo - and aestheticise - operations of capital and consumption in the new electronic economies. Museums and Public Galleries have been the matrix for such undertakings, and have helped validate new product (and movements) through their aura of being disinterested and magisterial arbiters of culture and value which operate in a sphere that lies outside the vulgar material world. Simultaniously - (and in tandem with practically all that which used to be considered the 'public sphere) hey have been frantically privatising all their functions and operations, either willingly or through the pressure from government - through the embrace of private sponsorship and donation, the presence of financiers, fund managers, fund raisers, private collectors and dealers on boards of management and collection committees. Their curatorial expertise has haemorrhaged to the private sector to work for private galleries or advise the new non-knowing collectors on how to build and invest in their contemporary art-portfolio. Thus curators and critics from the public sector have ended up shaping the collections of shipping magnates and Greek socialites and they have bought works that have been validated and given provenance and value through being shown in museum and public exhibitions curated by (the same) curators and critics. If Hirst's work has echoed the operations of value and commodity on Planet Finance, the complex incestuous imbroglio of the museums and non-commercial galleries with the commercial world has replicated the labyrinthine complexities and failures of financial regulation that has allowed the extraordinary boom and the unbelievable bust of the financial market model. Like the regulatory finance company Standard and Poors, museums and curators around the world have been issuing the equivalent of top AAA ratings for products that no-one really any longer properly understands. As with the regulators, the valuations have been of direct financial benefit to the people who support and pay the evaluating body. It is a situation where, as one of Standard and Poors' employees wrote, something 'could be structured by cows and we would rate it.' ...Or it would be shown.

For a while, around the time of the Hirst auction (without cows) there were voices claiming an art world exceptionalism, based on the arguments that a) it was 'Art' and therefore above 'all that sort of thing' and/or b) that as 'Art' it was really only of interest to a group of people who were so mega-mega-mega-rich that the fluctuations of salerooms and banks wouldn't effect them. Even though Damien Hirst as the mascot spirit of that age now passing, slipped through, which seems fitting, this doesn't seem to be generally holding true. Sotheby's has just let 120 people go in the USA. In May they sold a Bacon painting for $86 million American to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, their most recent sale failed to shift a similar one at under half the price. Galleries are shutting their doors. It is, as a friend just back from Art Basel Miami said, 'Like someone just turned a tap off.' Things are falling back to earth.

It's early days in what promises to be the long death of a galactic civilization so it is going to be hard to discern how things might reshape themselves under this bombardment, how a re-ordering might be imagined, how art and the art-world might re-articulate new models of value. The developments of the last few decades suddenly seem to make it redundant. As James Buchan writes, 'In societies governed by fashion and luxury, the public finds that there is almost nothing that it cannot do without.' ('Frozen Desire, an enquiry into the meaning of money.') Looking over the wreckage of the 'Mobile Art' tour, Karl Lagerfield was visited by a strange moment of lucidity, 'Today,' he mused to the interviewer 'everyone can say that something is for financial reasons when they want...for me, artistic reasons are more important. I always thought the building was a sculpture. I prefer it empty.'

© Richard Grayson 2009