Do rich artists make bad art?
27.04.2006 Jonathan Jones, The Guardian
Money was always pretty central to Warhol's aesthetic ... detail from Roll of Bills (1962). Image: Corbis/Andy Warhol Foundation
It is easier for a pickled shark to pass through the eye of a needle than for a multimillionaire to make good art. This week it was revealed that Damien Hirst, at 40, is worth ?100m, a stupendous figure unrivalled by any artist his age, ever, even allowing for inflation and the changing nature of wealth.
Andy Warhol may have been worth $228m when he died aged 59, but two decades earlier he was was spending money like water at his Factory studio. And although Salvador Dali had already been nicknamed Avida Dollars in his 30s, his mysteriously vast fortune (the IRS never could quite fathom it) grew gradually. Hirst is richer than the two most notoriously money-obsessed modern artists at his age - will his decline be even more grotesque?
Dali and Warhol both lost the spark of brilliance as money became central to their lives. At least in Warhol's case there was a pertinence, even a kind of martyrdom, to his immersion in the dollar sign, the ultimate Pop icon. When you become as rich as this, being as rich as this becomes your story. If you don't make art about being a multimillionaire, you are being dishonest. If you do, you can hardly claim the universality of great art.
The only chance for Hirst to avoid their fate is if he imitates old money. Artists were making vast fortunes centuries before Dali came along, but they didn't wear the money on the prongs of their moustache. They quietly invested it. Rubens is one of the most influential painters of landscape - and owned the land he depicted. He bought a country house, Het Steen, together with a title, Lord of Steen. His painting of Het Steen on an autumnal morning glows with his delight in success. Similarly, Claude Monet bought a house by the Seine where he created a water garden. His great water-lily paintings are the meditations of wealthy old age.
The most brilliant concealer of wealth was Picasso. From his 30s onwards, the modern master could afford the best studios and houses. But when we look at his painting of his studio on his Cannes estate we don't think of him as rich in the same vulgar way as Dali. This is because Picasso lived for work, and left it to his heirs to indulge the excesses and self-hatreds of the rich.
These artists proved you don't have to starve to be a genius. And yet they never had to make sense of ?100m at Hirst's age. Like Rubens, he has his country house, the 300-room Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire. But what would Van Gogh have done if you offered him Hirst's money as he stood there in the cornfield, pistol cocked? I think he would have pulled the trigger that bit more firmly.