Philip Hensher: There's only one way to find out what art is 'worth' – and Damien Hirst knows it

Monday 08 September 2008 00:00 BST

Three years ago, Londoners noticed that a sort of Victorian space shuttle seemed to have crashed into one of its most famous streets. They telephoned their friends, and their friends telephoned their friends. Shortly afterwards, a giant puppet of a small girl emerged, soon to be joined by a colossal puppet of an elephant.

No advertising preceded it, but with the aid of the internet and text messages, a crowd of about a million came to stare at The Sultan's Elephant.

Within 24 hours of the end of the three-day performance, 76,000 photographs of the extraordinary happening had been posted on the internet. It was the work of a French theatre troupe, Royale de Luxe, under the direction of François Delarozière. They have just brought another event to Liverpool to crown the city's status as the European capital of culture this year.

This time, a gigantic spider marched through the streets. The event has been somewhat different to the London one; it was much trailed in advance and the crowds were large before anything happened at all. But in other ways, perhaps, the magic of the London event is going to prove unrepeatable.

I heard one of those involved speak to a high-level Anglo-French seminar at the end of last year and it struck me then as a remarkable attempt to justify state-sponsored artistic activity.

These events can only be put on with enormous amounts of cooperation from municipal bodies, and public funds meet the cost. Despite the immense popularity of these events, no financial return is sought from the marketplace.

The Sultan's Elephant was popular, not just with its large audiences, but with arts administrators of a certain ideological stamp. It seemed to demonstrate, once and for all, an advanced maxim of arts funding: that people don't know what they want until administrators provide it for them with public money. And then they do want it.

This seems to me a statement of only limited truth and one that is likely to lead to one of two undesirable situations.

In the first, public funds are going to be used to underwrite activities which ought to be perfectly capable of existing within the marketplace. At the same seminar, I heard ludicrous tales of French arts festivals sponsoring hip-hop artists.

In the second, administrators are going to spend money on activities that only they find interesting. We end up with the German situation of terrible composers having long and well-paid careers without ever having to please or interest an audience.

Much as I enjoyed The Sultan's Elephant, it doesn't seem like a good model for the support of artistic creation. By contrast, a lot of obloquy has been heaped on Damien Hirst, who this week is putting up 233 separate works for auction at Sotheby's. It is a huge gamble, and has rightly brought comparison with historic cases where artists have been first borne up by, and then dismissed by the market. It seems entirely possible that Hirsts in the decades to come will sell for tiny fractions of what they now fetch.

But what is the alternative? Art has to exist within a marketplace, and Hirst is not only brave but honest in exposing the value of his art to what the market thinks of it. Art which exists entirely within the cocoon of public funding, however popular it proves, is only putting off the day of reckoning temporarily.

A US 'rescue' service is not for everyone

Bridget McCain, the adopted daughter of John and Cindy McCain, was, we are told, "rescued from Bangladesh" as a baby.

It's an interesting turn of phrase. Clearly, she would have had a desperate future before her if she had remained in the Bangladeshi orphanage, and the McCains gave her an immeasurably better quality of life, compared with those they left behind.

It's not the particular case, or the question of the benefit conferred on one little girl, that we should be concerned about, however. It's the impression conveyed that the inhabitants of a whole country spend their lives waiting in a queue to be admitted to a paradise called America.

Americans often point out that they live in the best country in the world. There is nothing wrong with thinking that. But where they differ from the rest of the world is, often, failing to understand that most people also think that about their own country. Ask a Frenchman, an Italian, an Indian, and you will get very much the same answer. Some people do dream of removing to the rich parts of the world; others, more thoughtful or optimistic, dream of improving the situation in which they were born, and which they love.

* How glorious to hear, in the Berlin Philharmonic's two Proms under Sir Simon Rattle, last week, a principal horn with a definite middle-European vibrato. Radek Baborak's unforgettable interjections in Shostakovich's 10th symphony exemplified a particular, local sound, and all the better for it. The ensemble had previously adopted a glossy international sound but on this occasion, its individual take was like listening to an orchestra rediscovering its origins and exulting in new possibilities.

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