Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Jumping the shark

The expression ‘Jumping the Shark’ comes from an episode of Happy Days. The Fonz (for those of you who remember) wearing both his signature leather jacket and water skis jumped over a live shark signalling to audiences that Happy Days had gone an episode too far. The expression now stands for something that hits an absurd and almost certainly unsustainable level. Sharks have marked two big cultural shifts over the last 40 years. The first was Jaws directed by 27-year-old Steven Spielberg in 1975. The world was in a deep recession brought on by oil embargos and Jaws jumped the movies into the modern age. Jaws was the first movie to use mass TV advertising and the first to open in wide release (409 theatres on Day One) rather than to build over months. With the shark came the beginning of high concept movies.

Fast forward to the recession of 1991 and 26-year-old Damien Hirst. When asked to make a work by advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, Hirst reached for a shark and created The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, as an early example of high concept art. Like Spielberg, Hirst changed the economics of his chosen sphere culminating in the Sotheby’s mega-auction Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.