A Whole New Shark


The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst, 1991

From The Believer:

When I’ve gone to the Met to study the early Italian works that Berenson loved and appraised, I’ve often wandered into other parts of the museum, and gradually a looping chain of connections among certain works of art and their financial eras has grown up in my mind.

For several years, the Met had on display another work by Damien Hirst, one called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. This work is famous for containing a real tiger shark, first preserved in formaldehyde by Hirst’s team in 1991. It was lent to the museum by hedge-fund financier Steven Cohen, listed in Forbes magazine as one of fourteen collectors whose art holdings are evaluated in excess of $700 million. Cohen paid for his Hirst, in the pre-leverage era, $8 million.

At the Met, people, especially small children, approach the gray, pendulous beast in its glass-and-riveted-steel tank with a certain anxiety. The piece combines menace and precariousness. I often find myself imagining the glass giving way and the blue-tinted formaldehyde pouring out into the room. The title of the work argues, convincingly, that it is hard to bring yourself to believe that the animal is really dead, and the use of this uneasiness to create the artistic impact is sinister. But under what is sinister is what is bewildering, and the bewilderment is common to both the new conceptual art and the new finance. The original shark, it turns out, rotted. Something about the formaldehyde process was miscalculated. The New York Times reported that they had to get a whole new shark in 2006; the work was evidently not constructed to stand the proverbial test of time. Steven Cohen was asked if he thought it was still the same piece, given that it wasn’t the same shark. He responded—and one feels that he could be talking as much about his profession as about his collection—that it didn’t really matter if the object itself endured: “We’re dealing with a conceptual idea.” Or, as Hirst himself put it in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last year, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time.”

In analyses of the financial crisis, it has become commonplace to point out that the prognosticators at Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs, and the hedge-fund financiers and advertising moguls who love to collect Hirst’s art, seem to think about only extremely small windows of opportunity in time. The long future of their investors and even, strangely, of their own enterprises, does not seem to be, to them, terribly compelling. We are reminded by pundits on the right and on the left that a hundred years ago, when the Morgan and Lehman and Goldman and Sachs families ran these banks, the long-term reputation of the enterprise was a crucial asset to the bankers. Even in the riotously speculative Gilded Age, this fact acted as a curb against profiteering, one that no longer seems to have any effect on many members of our financial classes. But can it be that it is only our bankers who have lost the sense of enduring value over time?

“Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering”, Rachel Cohen, The Believer