What a waste of money: expenditure, the death drive and the contemporary art market (New Formations 72, Winter 2010)

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Publication date: July 1, 2011

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Paul Crosthwaite

The commonplace, knee-jerk response to the enormous sums realised by iconic works of postwar and contemporary art Р‘what a waste of money!’ Рis conventionally countered in three ways: by explaining that such pieces possess an aesthetic importance that fully justifies the amounts spent to acquire them; by, conversely, making the pragmatic point that artworks can often prove to be extraordinarily lucrative investments; or, in a synthesis of these polarised views, by arguing that collecting art yields a degree of ‘symbolic capital’ (evidence of one’s knowledge, taste and sophistication; access to an exclusive, glamorous and creative social milieu) for which many are understandably willing to pay a premium. In this essay, however, I argue that the philistine and reactionary standpoint typically occupied by those who denounce money spent on contemporary art as money ‘wasted’ should not blind cultural critics to the kernel of truth in such assertions: that it is precisely the function of the contemporary art market Рand of the art auction in particular Рto provide an arena in which reserves of capital may be wantonly expended, and that the wastefulness of such acts of prodigality is maximised when the object purchased itself represents, or literally embodies, waste Рhence the prominence today of artworks that entail death, decay, mortification and abjection. In articulating this position, I draw on a theoretical tradition that has its roots in the Freudian theory of the death drive and runs through the work of the French thinkers Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva. I pay particular attention to the auction of work by the ‘Young British Artist’ Damien Hirst at Sotheby’s in London in September 2008, a carnival of expenditure that partook of the wider zeitgeist of financial dissipation generated by the global ‘credit crunch’, then entering its most intense phase.

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