In my brief but thoughtful existence, I have permitted myself only once the confidence to coin a law of life. It is that there is no such place as rock bottom. There is a sliver of solace, I suppose, in the thought that you have not yet sunk as low as you can sink; but it also robs you of the exhilaration that there is nowhere to go but up. Whatever the emotional consequences, the law that there is no such place as rock bottom is deeply counter-intuitive: the belief that things cannot get worse is a regular feature of contemporary experience, and it is often quite plausible. In the castle of culture, certainly, it is our daily bread. Why, just some weeks ago Christopher Hitchens and his camera-ready conscience went and got themselves waterboarded for the pages of Vanity Fair, which are anyway torture enough. There are many things that might be said about such a stunt--that moral understanding is not arrived at by means of the senses, or by personal acquaintance with evil; that ordinary intelligence and ordinary imagination are quite sufficient to establish the foulness and the folly of such procedures, which is why judges who have not dressed up in Guantánamo drag have been able to rule persuasively against them; that the victims of waterboarding do not commonly towel down and head for the Waverly Inn--but I have no intention of dignifying this high clowning with serious reflection. I hope only that Hitchens next tries rendition.
We are living in a golden age of the pseudo-meaningful stunt. After all, the democratization of bullshit on the Internet is making it harder and harder to get noticed. The market for everything is becoming awfully crowded. And so the desperation of the hucksters is everywhere in evidence. This week's delicacy comes from Sotheby's in London, which has delivered the news that Damien Hirst has produced a golden calf. "The Golden Calf by Damien Hirst headlines groundbreaking auction of work by artist," the press release screams in cerulean blue caps. It explains that "the centrepiece of the auction, The Golden Calf, is a monumental new sculpture: a bull in formaldehyde, whose head is crowned by a solid gold disc and whose hooves and horns are cast in 18-carat solid gold. Encased in a gold-plated stainless steel and glass box, it measures 215.4 by 320 by 137.2 cm. This exceptional work, which unites the artist's interests in science, religion, beauty, and death, is estimated to realise 8-12 million [pounds]." The prose reminds me of real-estate porn; but in these straitened times art- porn is replacing real-estate porn. Some photographs of Hirst and his bovine blue bath accompany Sotheby's announcement. He appears in the uniform of the contemporary avant-garde--t-shirt and jeans, which are supposed to represent, in London as in Brooklyn, something entirely new, an invigorating youthful candor, though they are as mannered and as conventional as any of Manet's cravats--and an unintentionally hilarious look of gravity on his otherwise affectless face. In fact, he and his dead animal look rather alike. And to add to the excitement, there is a blurb from the artist's own gallery. "Gagosian Gallery: 'As Damien's long-term gallery, we've come to expect the unexpected. He can certainly count on us to be in the room with paddle in hand.'" Oooh, naughty.
A golden calf: it is a startling admission. The iconographical heritage is, of course, very rich. In Poussin, in Tintoretto, in Lucas van Leyden, the artistic representation of the golden calf was contrived as a denunciation of what David Freedberg, in an extraordinary book on "the power of images" many years ago, described as "the crass and cold materialism that brings forth the idol that (once fashioned) is worshipped." Indeed, the Israelites at the foot of Sinai--Moses appears in all these pictures, preparing to shatter the law in anger--were guilty of two materialisms: of the calf, which was a betrayal of their metaphysics, and of the gold, which was a betrayal of their morals. The Tintoretto painting, in his own parish church in Venice, is (with its pendant The Last Judgment) the tallest painting on canvas that was executed in the Renaissance--almost fifty feet of castigation. Lucas's orgiastic Dance Round the Golden Calf, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is a large triptych that was created to bring the criticism of idolatry to the forefront of the believer's, or the spectator's, consciousness; and Poussin's celebrated picture, at the National Gallery in London, is certainly the most beautiful depiction in European art of the inclination of materialism toward wantonness. If the bull won't make you forget Yahweh, the woman dancing beneath the bull will. Moreover, these pictures were produced in an era of enormous controversy, and even violence, about the spiritual legitimacy of images--in the Netherlands especially, and also in Tintoretto's Venice, where the city's tolerance of dissenting creeds provoked the painter into his colossal reiteration of the orthodox horror of blasphemy. Genuine artists cannot be iconoclasts, obviously; but there is a rumor of iconoclasm in all these works.
Hirst, you might think, is an iconoclast, since his art is designed to smash art. But this is too flattering: iconoclasm was an affair of principle. And so, too, was iconodulism. There was nothing cynical about the calf that Aaron made. But there is no ideal in Hirst; there is only a capitalist's complacence. For him, the gold is more significant than the calf. His extrusions deserve a place in economic history, not in aesthetic history. Why else ship the idol directly from the studio to the auction house? In the press release, Hirst ringingly declares that "it's a very democratic way to sell contemporary art and it feels like a natural evolution in contemporary art." It sure does. But democratic? What he means is that no hedge-fund manager should be denied a fair shot at driving up the price. The truth is that The Golden Calf unites the artist's interests in science, religion, beauty, and death with the artist's interest in money. Remember, the story of the golden calf is the story of a mob divinizing its gold. Remind you of Greenwich? Hirst's stunt would not be possible without the small but fevered herd of individuals whose wealth grows in inverse proportion to their taste. He soaks the bull to soak the cattle. In the sublime old joke of Paul Desmond's, this is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker.
Subscribe to The New Republic for only $29.97 a year--75% off cover price!
By Leon Wieseltier