Art’s revenge on commerce

Image of Peter Aspden

Here is something you may want to pull out when you finally hit the seaside this summer: a green and red beach towel featuring a slogan that is bound to strike terror in those deckchair attendants responsible for keeping you in the right row of sand: “I believe in deeply ordered chaos”.

Wave that in their faces, and watch them cower. Or not. Whatever their reaction, they are highly unlikely to recognise the source of the quote: that beach-adoring, heat-seeking, muscle-pumping hero of all sun-lovers everywhere, Francis Bacon.

The towel is not the only surprise to feature at You can buy a birch wood tray that features Bacon’s disturbing 1967 work “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne”, or a silk scarf featuring a frankly terrifying self-portrait of the artist. There is a poignant deal in the special offers section: if you buy a T-shirt featuring another of the artist’s quotes, “I painted to be loved”, they will throw in for free a fine bone china mug embellished with the words: “You are born, you fuck, you die”, which will give an extra frisson to your afternoon Lady Grey and Chocolate Olivers.

The estate of Francis Bacon is not the only organisation to be cashing in, in somewhat surreal fashion, on the greatness of artists. Far from it. At the Damien Hirst online shop, under GIFT IDEAS, there are wallpapers, greeting cards, coin purses, skateboard decks. A £1,000 cashmere blanket is decorated with four images: a prayer book, a communion cup, a pair of hands clasped together in worship and, of course, a skull. The apparel of redemption has never come cheap.

Hirst’s butterfly deckchairs are rather beautiful, and would make an intelligent complement – think about it – to your “I believe in deeply ordered chaos” beach towel. But this attempt to show off some elementary understanding of chaos theory may well be lost in the summer breeze. You would be better off with the altogether racier Ed Ruscha beach towel on offer at, adorned with the thesis title-like words: “The Study of Friction and Wear on Mating Surfaces”.

I am not among those who routinely decry the commodification of art, although it is tempting to conclude that a tipping point has been reached. That an artist such as Hirst, or Ruscha, or Jeff Koons should be interested in the mass dissemination of their own images is entirely in keeping with the philosophies behind their work.

As Tate Modern’s excellent 2009 show Pop Life showed, the slick practices of selling became as important to the post-Warhol generation of artists as the hard graft of creation. “Good business is the best art” was one of Warhol’s shrewdest quotes, and what could be better business in 2012 than online selling to the leisured bohemian classes?

I’m not so sure about Bacon, though. His work was of a different order, and if we are to regard him as a masterly commentator on existential isolation and mortality, we are surely traducing his work by spreading it so thinly, on mugs, towels, silk scarves. We may live in a cheerfully ironic age, but there are limits. Bacon was trying to say something important about the human condition in his work. He struggled to say it, and we are captivated by the romance of that struggle. But the minute that the results appear on a kitchen tray, some of that subtle alchemical reaction between artist and spectator cannot help but be altered. We have lost something. The descent into kitsch is a one-way street and there is no turning back.

Turning high art into cheap products can be seen as an act of revenge by art on society. For most of history, great artists (with notable exceptions) have struggled to make money. The neglected genius is a cliché born of culture’s inability to reap its own rewards. But now art has turned the tables. In its inexorable spread into our kitchens and beach bags, it makes serious money for practitioners who have not necessarily risen above the ranks of the mediocre. It used to be too difficult for an artist to earn a living. Now, at a certain level of celebrity, it is too easy. It may be that the success of the art-related product tells us more about shopping than about art, and it may be good news. It seems we are desperate, even in our most trivial transactions, to associate ourselves with something profound. A tea towel featuring millennia-old motifs from the British Museum makes us feel there is a metaphysical resonance in our dish-drying. An umbrella whose underside is decorated with the vault of the Sistine Chapel makes us look to the heavens, in all senses.

In truth there has never been more common ground between the artist’s yearning for transcendence and the consumer’s banal checklist of trinkets. That is a relatively new development, and it has its pluses: cultural institutions make vital money from it (impulse-buying in the museum shop has become as important as the consumption of interval gin-and-tonics at West End theatres) and our lives and homes acquire a hint of crafty colour.

But it does make it harder for the artist to claim special status, as one who stands apart from the world of easy money and cheap success to ponder heftier themes. Who will now believe the words of Bacon, when he said: “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery”, especially when they can be read on a blue-and-beige €620 cashmere throw?

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