Public art as a source of private profit


By now, everyone must be bored with the avant garde art establishment and its recurrent trick of trying to revolt people by combining the atelier with the bathroom, the slaughterhouse, or the morgue. It turned that trick yet again in October, when the Brooklyn Museum of New York warned that the art in its notorious "Sensation" exhibit might cause "vomiting" and "confusion," in just the way Hollywood schlockmeisters used to "warn" people that some lousy horror movie could scare them "to death," promising in their ads to pay for the funerals. Of course, the museum didn't mean its lurid warning any more seriously than did the makers of The Screaming Skull: It was just another showtime.

The only real difference between Hollywood and the art establishment, at least in cases like "Sensation," is that while movie audiences aren't forced to underwrite theaters that show lousy movies, everyone is taxed to support art museums on the theory that art shows, however cynically produced, are a source of general enlightenment. But the result is that the art world becomes best known for its most cynical (or, at best, its most marginal) work–filled with bowel movements, urine, bloodletting, animal carcasses, etc.–because that is the source of all the shouting over what kind of artwork should be supported by taxes. Under those circumstances, general enlightenment gives way to general contempt. If anyone set out to undermine the power and meaning of creative expression, they could devise no better system than by joining art financially to a republic whose cultural role is otherwise limited to a guarantee of free speech. The one really noteworthy aspect of "Sensation" was that, this time, the cynicism behind this show bled through its First Amendment posturing. Even the New York art world seemed bored with the exhibit and embarrassed by the controversy. And no wonder: The show's centerpiece, as it emerged from snowballing publicity, was nothing more interesting than a piece of X-rated religious kitsch. If that's the best that enlightened private arts patronage teamed with esteemed public museums has to offer, then it's no surprise that everybody has become stupefied.

True, some people played their roles as they have been established in a long run of similar "shock" performances. Mayor Rudy Guiliani, perhaps sensing political opportunity, thundered righteously over what he called "sick stuff," in particular a work called The Holy Virgin Mary. As everybody now knows, that work depicts its subject with the use of elephant shit and little photos of bare human asses clipped from porno magazines. Guiliani moved to withhold the museum's subsidy, and even to evict it from its city-owned premises.

Editorialists at The New York Times thundered in return about state censorship. The museum sued; the mayor threatened to countersue. Crowds lined up outside the Brooklyn museum, with patrons offering reporters such cliches as, "Art is supposed to be provocative." Meanwhile, Chris Ofili, the manufacturer of The Holy Virgin Mary, adopted a tone of hurt surprise–pitiable if sincere–and insisted from his London home that he regarded elephant dung as a substance of great beauty. But in fact, nobody within the New York art establishment bothered to defend the show. There are scores of museums in New York, and no one associated with any of them had a good word to say about an exhibit that was under direct political attack. (About a week into the controversy, many museum directors were finally prodded into signing a pro forma letter protesting the mayor's funding threat.) New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman could find nothing better to say in his review of the show than, "It makes you think." What it made Kimmelman think about was "the extent to which the art world is out of touch."

There are a lot of reasons for this diffidence. One is that the exhibit originally opened two years ago in London and has since been in Europe. What has landed in Brooklyn–which might as well be Topeka as far as the Manhattan art crowd is concerned–is actually a smaller road-show version of the original; there's nothing to be gained by spending New York's cultural capital on somebody else's leftovers. A second reason is that, by this time, most of the artists in the exhibit have had New York shows of their own, and the only thing new about the material is the mayor's reaction to it. A third reason may be that the most controversial work seems to fit comfortably within Attorney-General Janet Reno's definition of "hate speech." But the most interesting reason may be that even the culturatti regard the show with contempt.

Here is what the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, wrote about "Sensation" in a Times op-ed piece a few days after the show opened: "Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, for one, has shown acute critical acumen. I do regret though, that the Mayor has given undue notoriety to artists who deserve to remain obscure or be forgotten. The suffrage of public opinion will ultimately have its say, but not before too many unwary visitors come to pay obeisance to art they feel they should try to understand and, heaven forbid, even like."

That is an astounding public torpedoing not only of a single exhibit in hapless Brooklyn, but of a whole school of art that has otherwise been flourishing for a decade. But the Met's director was probably aiming at neither the exhibit nor the museum, but rather at the person responsible for both "Sensation" and the school of art it displays. That person is neither an artist, nor a critic: He is a collector, and it is his apparent machinations in the art world that are at the heart of "Sensation" and its cynicism. He is Charles Saatchi, and he has become the most important art patron in the world.

The 100 or so artifacts in the "Sensation" show have almost nothing in common, except that all the artists are British, and all the works belong to Saatchi, an advertising magnate whose London agency was instrumental in bringing Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979 with the clever campaign slogan, "Labour Isn't Working." Charles Saatchi himself seems to have spent a minimum amount of time at the office during his ad career, devoting his time instead to his personal interests. One of his hobbies was to amass a huge collection of art. In 1988, Saatchi turned up at an abandoned London warehouse to see an exhibit of art titled "Freeze," staged by art students from Goldsmiths College. What caught his eye was the work of a student named Damien Hirst. Artist Hirst has since become quite well-known for, among other things, neatly slicing up animal carcasses and displaying them in tanks of formaldehyde. A sliced-up shark of his is on display in Brooklyn. The New York Times recently explained that Hirst is "a clever artist" because his works "allude intriguingly to Minimalist sculpture and other 60s art." Of course, even if one accepts the validity of the allusion, the matter of how intriguing it is remains to be demonstrated. Even so, his work has intrigued enough art buyers in the last decade that he has become rich as well as notorious. Indeed, Hirst recently opened a restaurant in London's ultra-trendy Notting Hill neighborhood. It's called Pharmacy, and it's a study in the mimetic; you can sit on stools there that are shaped like giant Tylenol tablets.

As for Saatchi, he was sufficiently inspired by the "Freeze" exhibit to start scouring London for similarly outre work by unknowns and buying them in large quantities. These he exhibited in his own London art gallery, generating considerable controversy and in the process successfully establishing a "school" that is known as Young British Art, or "YBA," a movement defined entirely by his own purchases, exhibits, and sales. There is no question but that Saatchi's activities as patron and gallery owner have been a boon not only to the artists he has handled but to the whole of the London art scene. It is largely due to his efforts as a promoter that London is today regarded as a hot art city.

Not everyone is happy with Saatchi's influence. Here, for example, is the view of New York art commentator Paul Hasegawa-Overacker on the Saatchi "recipe" for manipulating taste, as posted online at the Artnet site: "1) massive amounts of capital, 2) clever manipulation of the media taste for outrage, 3) packaging nationalism as a brand name (e.g., Young British Artists), 4) a moribund but aristocratic economy that funnels talent into anachronistic endeavors, that is, art-making, and 5) an esthetic of decadence unique to a fading empire that also happens to suit the taste of an enervated avant-garde." Hasegawa-Overacker admits self-deprecatingly that his observations are at least in part "protectionist."

The "Sensation" exhibit of Saatchi's own collection, as originally staged in 1997 at London's Royal Academy, was the hugely controversial apotheosis of Saatchi's involvement with Young British Art. That involvement has already passed into contemporary art history: There are books about the exhibit, books about the movement, even an immense 608-page tome called Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade, published by Abrams, the leading art publisher in the United States. It lists at $125, and, as one weary British reviewer described it, it is heavy enough to break any coffee table on which it is placed.

But "the Saatchi decade" appears to be over, at least as far as Young British Art is concerned. The collector and his gallery are now behind a new movement, this one called, believe it or not, "The New Neurotic Realism." Its artists appear to celebrate what they regard as their own amateurism, and oppose their work to the YBAs, who suddenly emerge as London's stodgy establishment. Saatchi, having created one movement with his savvy sense of marketing, appears to be creating another movement at the expense of the first one.

He may also be about to sell off his Young British Art collection. A number of observers in New York have noted that the expenses of the Brooklyn exhibit are being defrayed by, among other sources, Christie's, the auction house. And many people suspect that, when the exhibit closes in January, Christie's will sell the pieces to the highest bidders. Because of all the publicity, the bids may well be higher than they otherwise would have been. If all that happens, Saatchi and Christie's will have succeeded in using a publicly supported art museum to raise the value of objects that offend many of the people who are taxed to support that museum. Not only would the public's taxes have been used to underwrite an insult to its sensibilities, but its sensibilities would have been exploited to enrich those responsible for the affront. When public art museums were established to raise the moral level of the populace by exposing it to art, "Sensation" is probably not the sort of arrangement that was anticipated.

And yet "Sensation" is in most ways a typical exhibit. Wealthy art collectors have made financially beneficial arrangements with public galleries for generations, frequently at the expense of the taxpaying public. The rationalization behind such collaboration is that the public ultimately benefits, because art is so good for it. Yet the public has no say in what is being collected, reviewed, appraised, deducted from taxes, or exhibited. That is a matter left to the art world to hash out and pronounce upon; it is the public's role to wait in the museum line and otherwise to behave itself. The people with the real power in the art world are usually collector-patron, and dealers. Saatchi has enjoyed so much success because he is rich enough to be both.

How long has "serious" art revolved around collectors and dealers? Exactly as long as the vision of the individual artist has been the center of cult-like deference, and it is a central if ignored question of modern culture which of these phenomena is supporting the other. Most people would date the triumph of individual artistic vision with the rise of the Impressionists in 19th-century Paris. The history of the manipulative dealer begins at the same time, with their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel.

The best thumbnail evaluation of Durand-Ruel was probably written by his contemporary Emile Zola, who included the dealer–and many Parisian painters–under pseudonyms in his mostly forgotten novel about the Paris art scene, The Masterpiece (1886). Paul Cezanne, for one, thought he recognized himself in the book, and though he had been a close friend of Zola's, Cezanne never spoke to the novelist again after the book's appearance. Had Durand-Ruel been Zola's friend, he wouldn't have spoken to him anymore, either. Here's how he is described: He "was a dealer who for some years had been revolutionizing the picture trade. He was changing the market completely by forcing out of it the collector of taste and dealing only with moneyed clients who knew nothing about art and bought pictures of shares of stock either out of vanity or in the hope that they would appreciate."

Now, Zola used to hire sandwich men to advertise his novels, so it would have been graceless for him to complain about anybody else mixing art and profit. But his argument with Durand-Ruel was about less about money than about tastemaking, and its manipulation by speculating art star-makers. The true extent of that power was arguable, and was in any event limited to a very small, if influential, elite group. What really extended the power to manipulate was the spread of public art museums, which long ago assumed the role of validating the taste of the dealers and their investor-collector clients, and which have long been instructing the public at large to pay it aesthetic obeisance.

Of course, by Zola's day, an art market had existed for some time, much to the benefit of artists and art-lovers alike: Markets set art free from what the patronage of state, church and aristocracy would make it. But the alliance of dealers, collectors, and especially museums reimposes a latter-day control–one of taste–and has the effect of turning attention to the latest plaything of a tiny group of buyers and investors. These are more than happy to use the state's museums and tax laws to advance their interests, while the museums in their turn are more than happy to display and accumulate their well-publicized acquisitions. The rest of us are supposed to wait quietly on our side of the velvet ropes, keep our voices down, and hope that we aren't approaching the creations of Chris Ofili on too warm or humid a day.