In which we praise Damien Hirst


A slightly strange thing this, me the cultural barbarian praising an artist such as Damien Hirst. It's not that I'm Goering like, on hearing the word culture and reaching for my Browning (which is actually a line from a play but never mind), for there are arts that I'm greatly enamoured of. It's simply that the visual arts entirely pass me by: oooh!, pretty pictures! And?

So why am I praising someone whose work I have absolutely no understanding of? Because I'm not about to praise their work, rather an insight of a very different kind:

He is not troubled by the fact that the market determines the value of art: “I’m one of the few people in the world who can say, ‘I know what everything is worth.’... Everything in the whole world is worth what anyone else is prepared to pay for it. And that’s it. Simple.”

The ignorance of, the ignoring of, this simple truism is what led to so many of the gross tragedies of the 20 th century. Stalin's depredations, Mao's depredations, Pol Pot's murderous lunacies, Castro's imprisonment of the Cuban people. And in more minor ways it still causes problems in better climes: our own minimum wage is nothing but a lighter version of the refusal to face this simple fact.

There is no such thing as a "true" value of anything, no independent measure of what something is worth. There is only the sometimes arbitrary and always subjective values placed upon a thing by those capricious creatures, human beings, that value only to be measured by what people are prepared to pay for that thing.

Everyone from St. Thomas Aquinas through Karl Marx to the teenage Trots hatching in university common rooms as you read are and were wrong.

The value of something is what people will pay for it. Any and every political or economic system built on any system of valuation other than that will fail: usually in a sadly bloodthirsty and painful manner.