Saturday, December 3, 2011

Saint Charles Saatchi blasts "vulgar, masturbatory, art-buying Eurotrash"

In 1971, the American artist Vito Acconci secreted himself under the floor of New York's Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated while broadcasting his sexual fantasies through a loudspeaker audible to the gallery visitors above.

This er, seminal performance piece was not, however, what 'super-collector' Charles Saatchi was referring to in today's Guardian when he blasted the denizens of today's art world as "masturbatory", although as Acconci's performance piece makes clear, onanism has long been a feature of the art world.

Saatchi doesn't often address the media, generally preferring to keep his opinions to himself. Something of an art vampire, he is rarely glimpsed, only venturing out to feed on the freshest young contemporary talent for his Chelsea gallery.

I was therefore surprised, on emerging from the White Cube stand at the Frieze fair a few weeks ago, to spot the curmudgeonly old collector strolling towards me (above left), his features cast in a rictus of disgust, presumably at the acres of expensive tat that surrounded him. But given his usual reticence, it was even more surprising to see that look of disgust translated into an article for The Guardian, in which he rails at the "Eurotrashy, Hedgefundy, Hamptonites," and the "trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs…nestling together in their super yachts" at this year's Venice biennale.

He is right, of course. Loud money is everywhere in the art world. The big media draw at this year's Frieze fair was a super yacht and matching Riva power boat (right) by Italian company CRN, both of which had been blessed by German artist Christian Jankowski to become something more than mere maritime vessels…or so they would have you believe.

Luca Boldini, CRN's marketing director, told me, with an alarming lack of irony, "This is very much in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp and the idea of the Readymade. I am very confident that we will sell it. If we do, it will send a great wave around the world that will confirm the value of the project." It didn't sell. It sank like a rusty rowing boat in a force ten gale of mocking laughter. It's amazing that the Frieze curators give tent-room to this stuff.

Such crass stunts surely endorse Saatchi's central point, which is that the art world is overrun by witless opportunists with no taste and too much money. He suggests that "the success of the uber art dealers is based upon the mystical power that art now holds over the super-rich." But 'twas ever thus.

You could probably track this trend back to the period of rising post-war affluence when Greek shipping magnates like Stavros Niarchos and Basil Goulandris — the oligarchs of their time, thanks largely to the Suez Crisis which made their shipping businesses so profitable — were paying top dollar for Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings to stick on the walls of their many mansions. At the Biddle sale in Paris in 1957, Basil Goulandris bought Gauguin’s Still Life with Apples for $297,142 (buying power equivalent to $2.3m today), at which point “...the entire audience rose and burst into applause,” reported the New York Times.

Art has always been about conspicuous consumption (Veblen coined the term as far back as 1897), but it was really the Cognacq, Lurcy, Weinberg and Goldschmidt sales of the 1950s that marked the moment when the newly wealthy really discovered what Saatchi dismisses as the "pleasure to be found in having their lovely friends measure the weight of their baubles." (At least a Gauguin was a bauble worth measuring, unlike the dismal rubbish commanding top prices in the market today.)

Saatchi clearly has a problem with the oligarchs (one assumes he means Russian oligarchs) and on that point he's right on the money. Anyone who has bothered to read the recent history of Russia's power struggles and the turmoil in its economy will know that the Russian people were robbed blind by a few ruthless individuals in the early 1990s (Londongrad by Mark Holingsworth and Stewart Lansley is a good place to start.)

Recent BBC Radio 4 reports have focused attention on the corruption in Moscow's civic government and one can only wonder how far its tentacles spread. How much dirty money is being channelled into art? One sensed a good deal of it washing around Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams this week as all three houses dispersed Russian art to rooms full of what looked like paddle-waving gangsters with their anorexic girlfriends in tow.

The 'art world' has never been a particularly pleasant place in which to do business, but whether it's as bad as Saatchi maintains depends on your moral bias…or your taste (or lack of it).

Then again, Saatchi himself has hardly been an unequivocal force for good. Ask those artists whose paintings he bought back in the 1980s before unceremoniously dumping them a short while later. I've spoken to one or two who still can't bury the hatchet. Back then his approach to art was widely perceived as just as crude and philistine as the crapulous oligarchs and other freeloaders he's gunning for today.

Plus ça change...

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