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Newsletter 281

Published April 9, 2019
What millennials like... ?

After a few days in Hong Kong for the annual Art Basel events I’m convinced the world is getting both dumber and richer. But how are the two connected? Do you have to be really shallow to make obscene amounts of money, undistracted by any other concerns? Or do you just have to be born into an obscenely rich family?

The milennials who spent US $28 million on trash paintings and plastic knick-knacks by KAWS at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, are obviously not deep thinkers, but they have cash to burn. The time can’t be far away when our public galleries and art museums go running after these wealthy nitwits, hoping to make philanthropists out of them. The first signs of success will be large quantities of work by KAWS entering public collections. Curators and museum directors will be gushing enthusiastically about pictures of the Simpsons and overgrown toys, insisting we are watching art history being made.

It’s already happened with artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin, whose works have been gleefully accepted by museums from a previous generation of wealthy would-be donors. How could they refuse? To ensure their own survival they need to keep kissing those epxensively clad backsides.

I used to think most of this work was cynical junk, but after watching the rapid rise of KAWS, I’m willing to invest Damien & co with a new air of respectability. Time will tell, of course, and it’s most likely that many of the best-sellers in the ranks of today’s artists will be relegated to the basements, while artists who attracted a lot less attention will rise to the surface.

The bigger worry is what’s going to happen to a world in which money has become such an abstract quantity and judgement has gone down the toilet. In Hong Kong last week it was easy to forget that most of the world’s population lives in dire poverty. Even more disturbing is the realisation that a large percentage of the impoverished are willing to vote for authoritarian figures who will only make their lives worse, or attach themselves to fundamentalist ideologies. Bad taste is the least of our concerns.

This week’s art column barely scrapes the surface of the Hong Kong events, but I confess I’m spellbound by the spectacle. The international contemporary art market feels increasingly as if it’s something from a science fiction movie, created by CGI whizzes. Or perhaps a better image might be that desperate, overheated ambience seen in the heady days of the Weimar Republic, as the world surged towards a new doomsday. It’s all fun and games until, suddenly, it’s not.

In a scrappy week at the movies I’ve reviewed two films that stand out from the crowd, but are unlikely to be box office favourites. Galveston is a stylish but brutal affair, in which Ben Foster and Elle Fanning show us they can really act. I only wish it wasn’t such a depressing story. The other film, Woman at War, is – like so many things from Iceland – an oddity. They see the world differently on this little island, and there’s a lot of originality in this tale of a woman who goes into battle on behalf of the environment, armed with a bow and arrow and explosives. I only wish someone might take the same approach to that ugly great KAWS sculpture floating in Hong Kong Harbour.