Swans Commentary » swans.com January 12, 2009  



Money In The Picture: London Art


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - January 12, 2009)   Money is the devil that rides us all as we mutter about moral values, justice, higher things and art. Nothing new, then, in the fact that numbers and balance sheets figure larger than ever on the British visual art scene. In recent years the smirking Prince of Darkness has dug his spurs into the art market driving it to unheard of peaks. Dealers have always been the love-hate figures for struggling and non-struggling artists. In an era of corporate control, it's not surprising that a famous advertising executive has become the single greatest influence on the market of contemporary art in Britain. He's emblematic of that world of defeated ideals.

Charles Saatchi has been called a "super collector" and "the most successful art dealer of our times." He began collecting thirty years ago and for the last two decades can be said to have brought contemporary art to the attention of a larger audience. He's done so exactly in the way paparazzi, gossip columnists and publicity agents have made the singer Amy Winehouse a household name. This doesn't mean that La Winehouse has no talent, but only that few of us would have heard of her did she not keep getting arrested on drug charges. Without her extra-artistic notoriety her vocals would fetch a much more modest price, just as the work of Saatchi's artists would cost much less without his adman's craft.

Saatchi's own explanation of his activities is that he loves to show art and to spread an interest in it throughout society. In the thoroughly commercial atmosphere of the present, he makes us feel naïf and unrealistic to ask the question that's on our mind: Would he give a tinker's dam for the stuff if he wasn't making money out of it? He has done his middleman's act of showing and spreading in various venues and finally in his new gallery situated on Kings Road in London's Chelsea. There are 70,000 square feet situated in the Duke of York's Headquarters building, a venerable architectural landmark. He runs this as a "corporate partnership" with the leading contemporary art auction house of Phillips de Pury.

You can begin to smell the downside. There's a blurring of the public and private domain. Saatchi has sometimes shown his artists in government funded galleries that served as his showrooms. Forget about historical significance: his merchandise flashes like a PR man's bright idea. He prizes novelty, immediacy of impact, and a contrived virginity that recalls his trophy wife, a TV talk-show flirt. His sights are on the new, taste-challenged billionaires who have been growing at a rate of 20% a year since 2000.

Saatchi has taken the traditional strategy of art dealers to new heights. He invests in young artists, making them his and then, over time, uses the exhibition space he controls, media hype, and the celebrity circuit to drive up their prices. The artist Peter Blake dubbed Saatchi "a malign influence" because of the way he could "make" certain artists. Saatchi's answer, an attempted put-down, proved Blake's point: "I wonder if Peter Blake would consider me a less malign influence if I had bought some of his art."

What Saatchi is buying by the ton just now is contemporary Chinese art. His current show displays it lavishly. You don't know whether to laugh or cry when you see his staff in their red T-shirts. These are emblazoned The Revolution Continues on the front and New Art From China, Saatchi Gallery on the back. Like any other crabbed exemplar of humanity dwarfed by the times, I'd like to take a running kick at the nearest representative of corporate power dressed up by an advertising agency. Only uncertainty of what my legal position would be and the fact that some artists I respect deny Saatchi's malignity gives me pause. Whatever doubtful deals the man has done with the property developers and local authority (the London neighborhood's government) the new exhibition space -- his display window -- is attractive and open to the public without charge.

So Saatchi has embarked on a Chinese investment spree that will send up the prices of his chosen artists. At the same time he now agrees readily that speculation, of which he has been a prime instigator, has wildly inflated prices generally. And just recently he even stopped denying that there was danger of the bubble bursting. Ben Lewis in Prospect Magazine, December 2008, believes that moment has arrived. He compares the coming crash to the end of the Dutch Tulip mania of 1637:

We have surely reached the same point in the world of contemporary art. One of the emotions that has driven its boom is the narcissistic belief of the rich in the greatness of the age in which they are living. They thought they were buying masterpieces. But like the Dutch merchants and their tulips, the obsession of the new rich with contemporary art is likely to be remembered as the epitome of the vanity and folly of the age.

Back in 2003 you could buy a Damien Hurst, one of Saatchi's "made" artists, for $1-$3 million. In 2007 a Hurst went for $20 million. It took house prices in Britain six years to double from 2000, whereas contemporary art doubled in just the one year of 2005-6. Christie's chief executive estimated that the contemporary art market had grown in value from $4 billion a year to $20-30 billion in the last eight years.

There are signs that Lewis is right. The Telegraph reports, December 21, 2008, that Christie's itself risks going under the hammer. Sotheby's share price lost three quarters of its value over the past year and is busy laying off staff in New York. The latest round in contemporary art auctions has been a dismal flop. The auction houses are overwhelmed by debt and no longer always offer artists guarantees before sales. But the peculiarity of the market in contemporary art is that it's a con man's happy hunting ground operating in the main on bluff and fashion. No one can be sure exactly what's happening because there is almost no government oversight in this playground of the billionaires. It makes the international financial market that has just crashed seem like an example of well-regulated transparency.

All this is as remote from an art museum visitor like me as the market for futures in wheat when I bite into a hamburger bun. I'm not investing; I'm looking. Money only comes into my visit if there's an entry fee. Otherwise I enjoy an ascetic's perfect freedom without any of the claptrap of prayers and clergymen. I delight in not owning, just gawking. I have a rough idea of the whole range of Western Art. What strikes me about the old masters is their gravity. A face of a Rembrandt portrait sums up a scarred life. Greco's dying man on a cross is everybody's fate of suffering on to death. A Titian scene of the Roman countryside shows human animals taking a dignified stand in nature. Even the frivolous world of Watteau impresses me as serious: hedonism as a life choice and one recipe for survival. The awe of Turner before a tempest is, well, awesome. Impressionism for all its gossamer sensuality is a trance-like life choice. German Expressionism is the right introduction to the violence of a century of alienation and world war. The humor of surrealism draws blood from the same wounds. And nothing is more soul-searching -- grim faces looking inward -- than American post WWII action painting.

With pop art I watch the mood and accent change. I don't mind; I've nothing against fun. But at the end of the 20th century I do lose my footing for a while. Art has moved for a good part off the easel. There are video offerings. There are installations and art I can walk through. There's landscape art I have to look at from an airplane. Art has left the studio and bears witness to a much wider range of human experience. One Brit artist displays her much slept-in bed and dirty sheets. I manage to take all this on board only with hesitation and misgiving. The feeling is that I'm being smothered with triviality. I don't really want the banal side of everyday life set out before me. Where has the sacred tremor gone? Everyone surely knows that at a time when religion is merely another consumer product great art remains the only genuine measuring rod of the soul. Space and color on their own and the infinity of takes on the world and ourselves are all very well, but I'm hungry for news of those grimy old last things.

Luckily, London just now is well served by epoch-making exhibitions of two giants of the second half of the 20th century who both dealt in the pain and beauty of existence. Francis Bacon at the Tate Britain and Mark Rothko at the Tate Modern both speak of something other than the bottom line though even they have twinkled in the swelling bubble. (Roman Abramovitch paid $86 million for a Bacon in July 2008, while the Qatari royal family took possession of a Rothko for $73 million.)

Bacon is one of those 20th century men who have absorbed all the horrors of the age. His genius is in his ability to put those "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" into dramatic personal imagery. There's heroism in his flaunting of, rather than smoothing over, his radical alienation. In his dialogue with David Sylvester -- perhaps the best ever conversation between an artist and critic -- he talks about rejecting a color at one stage because it was too "homey." And the key to Bacon and those he speaks for is that they have no home. This overriding discomfort is what Bacon expresses, exerting all his wiles to make it tolerable by couching it in savage beauty. His method mixes accidents and the greatest rigor. (For Bacon, abstract painting is pattern making and most figurative work mere illustration.) His art may be strange and new but it participates in the age-old balancing act of tragedy. Art sugars the bitter pill, but there's no avoiding the bitterness of the news that's delivered. Not surprisingly, Bacon's literary references are to the Eumenides of Aeschylus and to the Sweeny poems and Wasteland of T.S. Eliot.

The viewer of Bacon's work is thus seared and cut by beauty. The paradox was mirrored in the artist's life where greed for existence ever accompanied a harrowing depiction of that existence. Bacon's homosexuality was a side issue, important only in that it called attention to his and our alienation. Had his imagery been heterosexual, it would have embodied the same desperation of the "forked animals" involved. Bacon's statements about his work quite rightly avoided any theorizing that would have crippled his creative élan. He said that he wanted to bring portraiture up to date by putting his gut reaction to people into image after image that would go direct to the viewer's nervous system. He added that story telling and any subject but people bored him to distraction.

The distance from Bacon to Rothko is much greater than that from the Tate Britain, north of the Thames, to the Tate Modern on the south bank. It's more like leaving the killing fields and entering a safe, empty church. There's nothing inside except Rothko himself, and the great absence of God. The painter once said teasingly that he didn't mind viewers having spiritual transports over his pictures, but that he was just as agreeable to them having merely profane experience when they engaged with his work. Rothko is a non-figurative painter, and just how he managed to cloak himself in a religious mantle is one of the intriguing sub-plots of modern art. The secret seems to be in his power to demand and obtain contemplation. For fifty years the public has been hushed and piously respectful before a Rothko painting. He often displayed his work, as in Houston or at the Tate Britain, in a simulacrum of a chapel. In a didactic moment he once wrote rules for making art that would communicate more than only the self. The first commandment was, "There must be a clear preoccupation with death."

Rothko is a master of super-imposing and juxtaposing vast areas of color in a way that draws us in for a spell of serene musing. When he tells us that his black is a "failed" or untrue black, we agree to stare it down for a while. Sure enough we discover luminosity, a whole tribe of non-black glimmers within that squirm to get out. Our serenity goes out the window. (When we look at a black patch in Bacon, we read it quickly as a signal that points to the drama of the figurative scene.) This long gaze at a Rothko transforms the painting from beautiful emptiness to a drama without actors save for the artist's hand. The edges of those colored panels aren't smooth but feathered -- he used house painter's brushes -- and each notch and irregularity takes on meaning. Without a trace of the flesh that's so present in Bacon, we see the storyline of our life here, dematerialized though it might be. The areas of color could indeed evoke those very serious and grimy last things in life some of us hanker to recall. It's a passage into a kind of void that has nothing to do with the vacuity of an adman.


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Published January 12, 2009