Bankers and Artists: Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering

There is a glitter and gold link between bankers and artists. Long before the 2008 financial crisis, both influenced our understanding of time and space through their representations of value.

| March/April 2013

This piece has been shortened and can be read in its entirety at The Believer. 

In 2007, with Financial Markets ballooning on every side, the artist Damien Hirst cast a real human skull in platinum, encrusted the cast with 8,601 diamonds that might or might not have come from “conflict-conscious” sources, and called his construction For the Love of God. Images of the macabre object circulated with incredible speed, and there was cheery debate about whether the accomplishment of the work was in the realm of aesthetics or that of the market, whether what mattered were the artist’s choices or the fact that the piece had lived up to its announced intention to be “the most expensive piece of art by a living artist” and had sold for $100 million. Two years later, with financial markets imploding on every side, it was reported that the work had in fact been sold to a holding company that turned out to consist of Hirst’s gallerist, his business manager, his friend the Russian billionaire art collector Viktor Pinchuk, and Hirst himself. There were then those who, staring at their own newly empty stock portfolios, found in the title apt expression of their feelings. The work itself, with its diamond-laden eye sockets and its original inhabitant’s grinning teeth, seems unperturbed by any hollowness of value in the financial or art markets. It does not matter to this cynical epitome of our glittering age whether it was made for the love of anything but more zeroes.

To my mind, what the work represents, specifically, is not our artistic, or not only our artistic, but our financial life.

Since 2008, and the crisis of mismanagement that resulted in the failure of Lehman Brothers and precipitated our current financial woes, it has seemed to me that the business of all the large financial institutions—even the ones that conspicuously did not fail, like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase—has something important in common with the sale of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. All of these institutions have, or had, significant interests in financial products like derivatives and mortgage-backed securities. These products, or “instruments,” or “vehicles,” are anchored not to any concrete goods but only to finance itself. It was in this way that, in 2010, during the midst of the financial crisis, the gross domestic product of the entire world was between $50 and $60 trillion, while the volume of derivatives trading was about 20 times the size of the GDP—$1,200 trillion, or $1.2 quadrillion.

Mortgage-backed securities are created by assembling thousands of particles of debt—pieces of debt owned by homeowners in Peoria and by southern African governments at war over the diamond trade—and then packaging these together and selling them. Like the men of Wall Street, Damien Hirst is a creator of astronomical value, seemingly out of nothing. The diamonds on the Hirst skull were reportedly worth $23.6 million—the rest of the work’s value was created, overnight, in the assemblage. For the Love of God applies the technique of a leveraged buyout not only to a work of art but as a work of art.

In fact, we have long entrusted the task of representing our ideas of value to members of two professions that might seem to have little in common: banking and art. And, in the last 700 years or so, it has happened more than once that visual and financial inventors have come up with strikingly similar representations. When you look further into these intersections, you often find that what is really at stake is a change in the way we feel and understand time.