In the second of a week-long series looking back at the decade, our writer remembers the artworks that defined the decade.
Art: 2000 - 2009 retrospective
If you want a face of the decade then it is a platinum skull glittering with diamonds, sparkling eye sockets staring into the velvet darkness around them. Damien Hirst's 2007 sculpture was the most important artwork produced in the past 10 years: not for what it was, but for what it said.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph when the piece was unveiled in June 2007, Richard Dorment immediately recognised its significance "in the most brutal, direct way possible, [this work] questions something about the morality of art and money- it is a hand grenade thrown into the decadent, greedy, and profoundly amoral world where art meets money." It cost £14 million (Dh82m) to produce, and the fact that its asking price of £50m (Dh293m) was probably only met by a consortium that included the artist himself further muddies the waters around a work that summarised the decade's obsession with art as a commodity.
Hirst's own trajectory neatly matched the arc of the years. The night Lehmann Brothers collapsed in 2008, he sold a mass of work at Sotheby's, raising a reported £111m (Dh650m). Then he turned his back on all that razzmatazz, shut himself in a shed in his large garden, and began painting. The results, displayed in London's historic Wallace Collection, were second-rate imitations of Francis Bacon and the critics pounced, delighted to have a chance finally to reveal that the poster boy of Britart was really an emperor without clothes. But their negative comments did not deter the market: the entire show was reportedly snapped up by the Ukranian billionaire Victor Pinchuk.
So that is one aspect of art in the decade. Its creation has been driven by what Achim Borchardt-Hume, the chief curator of London's Whitechapel Gallery, calls "an entrepreneurial ethos to expand". This has been reflected in the market which went through a kind of feeding frenzy that the decline of the past year has not wiped out. Sales of art worldwide at Christie's stood at £1.5 billion (Dh8.8bn) in 2000; by 2008 they had risen to £2.8bn (Dh16.5bn), a climb of some 87 per cent.
At the same time, art has become more and more popular as a consumer entertainment. Institutions around the world have rebuilt themselves and attracted crowds as never before. In Britain, the opening of Tate Modern in May 2000 marked the beginning of a new love affair with modern art. The building, once a power station, was transformed by the architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron into a centre for the cutting edge. It is now Britain's third-most-visited tourist attraction, with more than five million visitors a year. So successful is it, that plans are afoot for a massive new extension, to be completed in time for the London Olympics in 2012.
The pattern of a major rebuilding programme that made art suddenly more accessible and rekindled wide interest was repeated across Britain. Around the world, using funds both public and private, the trend continued: for example, a rebuilt MOMA opened its doors in New York in 2004; in Paris, the Louvre continued its expansion with the reopening of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2006; in Venice, François Pinault housed his collection of contemporary art in La Dogana, a renovated 17th-century custom house. The Guggenheim celebrated 50 years in its Frank Lloyd Wright building in New York - and its foundation announced a branch to be opened on Saadiyat Island in 2013. A branch of the Louvre will also be sited in the new cultural district.
As these developments show, it is not just in the West that new museums have opened and new audiences been attracted. Art has become a truly global phenomenon, with every country wanting its share. One result of that is that this decade has not had one city as its focus in the way the 1970s belonged to New York or the 1990s to London. It has thrived in capitals across the world. As Caroline Bourgeois, the curator of the Pinault Collection, points out: "This has been the decade when the new artistic scenes in so-called emerging countries, the Middle East and Iran, China and India, are more and more present. We can no longer think of the art world in terms of the West, Europe and the United States: there are many more histories of art which have revealed themselves. We can now count on these countries to produce artists who play an important role on the international stage."
Those artists are already emerging. One of the most impressive sights I encountered this decade was another giant skull, this time made of stainless steel pots and pans by the Indian artist Subodh Gupta. It glowered over a Venetian canal, announcing the arrival of its creator. The Chinese exhibited in Venice for the first time in 2005, colonising a garden at the back of the Arsenale. Since then works by artists such as Zhang Huan, who makes sculptures and paintings in incense ash, have achieved worldwide prominence. The collector Charles Saatchi, never a man to miss a trend, made Chinese art the focus of the first show at his huge new gallery on London's King's Road.
The work varied in quality, but that was almost beside the point. The fact that it is being seen, talked about, bought and collected is almost enough. But as Borchardt-Hume points out, the art of this decade has not only been about the market. Over the years, the number of biennales and exhibitions has proliferated - and the art on display there is in marked contrast to the art being bought by collectors. "It is interesting that there is such a chasm between the art you see at the art fairs and the art you see at biennales," he says. Film, video and photography dominate those forums, and the mood is both academic and critical.
Artists are also producing, on a grand scale, work that is designed to be seen in public places. Anish Kapoor, for example, has come into his own, his work growing in confidence with each year that passes. This year's retrospective at the Royal Academy in London is a colourful, joyful exploration of all the possibilities of sculpture; his vast Sky Mirror, which was shown at the Rockefeller Centre, and Cloud Gate, on permanent display in Chicago, are massive reflective works that both challenge and engage the public.
In the same way, the Danish sculptor Olafur Eliasson, who works out of a studio in Berlin, has become one of the most powerful and influential artists of the decade. His Weather Project, a dazzling disc of orange light that hung in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, was the most memorable artwork seen in Britain, rivalled in popularity only by Carsten Holler's twisting slides, which filled the space with delighted screams.
In Paris, Richard Serra hung overwhelming steel plates in the Grand Palais to make promenade - another public artwork that had a power and resonance far beyond the art world. The quality these public works have in common is their ability to make large numbers of people think that contemporary art is something for them to enjoy; they can interact with these pieces, recognising them as art without feeling intimidated by them.
This trend was at its most obvious in Britain when Antony Gormley (another artist who has spent the decade consolidating a worldwide reputation) launched One & Other, an installation in which he invited members of the public to spend one hour each standing on a vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square. In the course of its 100-day duration, this simple act attracted admirers and detractors. Some felt it showed the trivialisation of British culture, others the indomitability of the British character. Whatever- on its last day, Gormley was virtually mobbed, like a rock star, by members of the public.
Broadly popular works such as this have dominated the headlines this decade. But that hasn't stopped the less showy and more esoteric emergence of works that break the boundaries between visual art and other forms. A significant milestone was set, for instance, by the American artist Matthew Barney who, in 2002, completed his Cremaster Cycle, five idiosyncratic, haunting, feature-length films that were shown in cinemas but were stuffed with difficult symbols and complex imagery. No one could pretend this was art for mass consumption, but it was hauntingly original.
So too is the work of the South African artist Candice Breitz, who manipulates scenes she finds in movies to make video installations that tell a different story. In one of her most inspired works, she filmed 30 Italian Madonna fans singing her greatest hits. Watching the lookalikes perform across the walls of the gallery was a witty but profound meditation on celebrity and hero-worship. Amid all this frantic activity and among these huge gestures, painting has persisted against all odds. When I look back over my personal art gallery of the decade, I find works on canvas a surprisingly dominant force: the power of late works from Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha; the vividness of John Currin's buxom women, where the paint is applied with the care of an Old Master; the iridescent brights of Chris Ofili in his installation in Venice and in the extraordinary The Upper Room.
Outside the contemporary art scene, this has been perhaps the last decade when viewers around the world can still enjoy huge blockbusting shows of historic art. In London, we have thrilled to great shows of Monet, Caravaggio, Titian, Hopper and Van Gogh. In Paris, we were treated to a retrospective of Ingres. With such a variety of work on display and so many people so willing to experience all kinds of art, the 2000s has been a great decade for the visual arts. Only time will tell whether the work promoted by the market holds its long-term value. What is certain is that the interest generated around the world will sustain art itself for a long time to come.