The leading British collector Charles Saatchi ranks as one of the most influential figures in the world of contemporary art. Twenty-five years ago he began an energetic campaign of acquiring work by such artists as Derek Hirst and Tracey Emin. Known collectively as the Young British Artists, these figures and their associates are credited with revitalizing art in the United Kingdom, raising it to world-class status. Eventually, Saatchi created his own gallery of these works, finally donating them to the British public.
Because of his prominent role, the fact that Saatchi published a skeptical article on the art world in December 2011 made waves.
Born in 1943 to considerable wealth, Charles Saatchi founded, together with his brother Maurice, an advertising agency that emerged as the world’s largest in the 1980s. Concentrating his resources, Charles Saatchi was able purchase pretty much anything he wished. He began collecting in 1969 at the age of 26, specializing in late modern works, most of them non-British. At one point the Saatchi collection contained eleven works by Donald Judd, twenty-one by Sol LeWitt, twenty-three by Anselm Kiefer, seventeen Andy Warhols and twenty-seven by Julian Schnabel. In 1988, after visiting the Freeze exhibition organized by Damien Hirst, he switched to the Young British Artists.
What are the problems that Charles Saatchi highlighted in his piece of December 2, 2012 in the Guardian? The article bears the title of “The Hideousness of the Art World.” He pulls no punches.
“Even a show-off like me finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow.
“Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for this year's spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-fillled socialising, from one swanky party to another.”
He goes on to ask: “Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.”
The curators must shoulder some of the blame. “For professional curators, selecting specific paintings for an exhibition is a daunting prospect, far too revealing a demonstration of their lack of what we in the trade call ‘an eye.’ They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers. This 'conceptualised' work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s . . . ”
Charles Saatchi’s beef seems to come down to this. Unlike most earlier collectors of the avant-garde, the new breed of acquisitors has no background or even affinity for art. The objects are simply status symbols in the most obvious sense. In collusion with dealers, who are getting rich off this feeding frenzy, money corrupts everything. In this donnybrook, curators have been falling down on their job.
Saatchi’s cri du coeur raises several interesting questions. What exactly are the origins of the new superrich vulgarians who are polluting the art world? Since I don’t frequent such circles, I can only hazard a guess. Some may be Russian oligarchs, others Silicon Valley tycoons--and (maybe) big-time drug dealers.
What does this influx of ignoranti collectors have to say about the art they choose? Has their corrupting influence had a noxious effect on current production? Evidently not--at least not yet--because Saatchi says, accurately enough, that this Conceptual stuff has been prevalent since the 1960s.
It is not clear to what extent Charles Saatchi might now regret the purchases he so avidly made during his salad days. Some items, though, he apparently sold off before he donated his hoard to the British nation.
SECOND THOUGHTS. When I first read Saatchi's attack, I experienced an agreeable sense of schadenfreude. Now, I thought, the swindle of contemporary art is getting what it deserves! One of the prime culprits has seen the light, and has openly confessed his complicity.
Perhaps, though, Saatchi as he now is, and I are just old fogeys.
Some further reflection suggests that the nature of art has fundamentally changed, and not necessarily disastrously. It may be that art has finally escaped its focus on holy objects, a concept traceable ultimately to medieval reliquaries, and has become participation and performance instead. At any rate, it is this concept that is drawing in so may savvy young people in their twenties and thirties. This is particularly true of the Tate Modern, a vast pile in London managed by the brilliant Nicholas Serota, which attracts five million people a year.
The nature of the Tate Modern experience has been ably captured by John Elderfield, one of the most eminent senior scholars in the field of modern art. Elderfield believes that what has happened at the Tate Modern is "a radical change in how people use museums now. It's not only about looking closely at works of art; it's moving around within a sort of cultural spectacle. I have friends who think this is the end of civilization, but a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things and be transported by them." (Quoted by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker, July 2, 2002; a piece unfortunately protected by a firewall: https://www.google.com/search?q=Tomkins%20The%20Modern%20Man&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&source=hp&channel=np).