This past summer the Tate Modern exhibited a Damien Hirst retrospective. Perhaps the most popular room in the exhibit was the last: the gift shop. Here, one could purchase Damien Hirst ceramic plates, cufflinks, silk scarves and skateboards, deckchairs and clocks, among numerous other nik-naks (including limited edition plastic skulls with the price tag of approximately $50,000).
In a 2000 interview with The Independent, Hirst stated “becoming a brand name is a really important part of life.” He was also involved in founding the publishing company Other Criteria, which produces prints, photographs, art publications, jewellery and clothing by various artists including himself.
Of course, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living also gathered quite a crowd at the exhibit. The menacingly open jawed tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde caused such a stir in both the art world and the economic world when it was sold to billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, that it inspired the book, The $12 million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, by Donald Thompson.
Though contemporary and conceptual art has long been a part of the art market, the immense reception of Hirst’s shark seemed to trigger many of the concerns that linger over such kinds of artworks. When Hirst first exhibited the tiger shark piece, it was not preserved properly and ended up stretching and morphing, so to sell it, he had to create a new one. Some people wondered whether a new shark meant that it was a new artwork altogether, but with conceptual art, this is a tough question. Just as with pieces like his dot painting series, which were made by a team of assistants, one may ask how important the concept is versus the hand of the artist or even the physical state of the art piece.
Is an artist any less credible if they sell more affordable versions of their famous pieces in the form of consumerist goods? Is there a difference between selling a print of your work and selling a fashion accessory with that print on it? As the lines become blurrier as to what constitutes the making of art (is it the same to paint a piece yourself as it is to have your assistant paint it?) so do the lines regarding how one sells art.
Perhaps more recently, it is graffiti artists who bring up these issues, which seems almost paradoxical, as their art, in its original form, is absolutely removed from being a commodity. Taking the art from the gallery wall and placing it on the exterior of a building means that the traditional ways in which art is sold is out of the question. As far as we know, you still can’t purchase an alleyway wall. That being said, just as Hirst takes his conceptual work and applies it to the design of consumerist goods, many street artists are doing the same. Take for instance, Curtis Kulig: would we call him an artist or designer?
Kulig came up with the concept of a graffiti tag which says “love me” and proceeded to brand it in as many different ways possible, including collaborations with Smashbox cosmetics and the clothing store, Urban Outfitters.
When asked by Deadline, a clothing company with whom he collaborated, whether he thought there was a point where it “stops being art and becomes full on consumerism,” he responded:
“I think were living in time where art is consumerism, but who am I to say. What is consumerism what is art…To me its an art to wake up, brush your teeth, take a piss, drink your coffee, smoke a cigarette. Where and when does it end?”
And that’s a question that we still aren’t quite sure how to answer, where does it end?