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Rita Hatton and John A. Walker
Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi
(Institute of Artology)
Art Buccaneer and Gambler
by Donald Kuspit


Rita Hatton and John A. Walker, Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi, Institute of Artology, London, 2003, 20.

Rita Hatton and John A. Walker's Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi is an important, terrifying book -- perhaps the most important, terrifying book you're likely to read about the socioeconomic realities of the contemporary art world. Hatton and Walker offer what they call "a hostile critique written from an anti-capitalist standpoint," but their generalized anti-capitalism is less to the point than their very detailed, meticulously researched description of Charles Saatchi's comings and goings -- power and authority, more particularly, the power and authority of his money -- in the art world.

The terrifying thing is that the money gives him the right to create art value where there is none -- to create art history where there is little or no esthetic and intellectual value, as Hatton and Walker argue. They make it clear that Saatchi is a speculator in art futures, and that art itself has become a speculative enterprise with no clear future -- except the future it has on the art market, which is where art history is really made.

It is as though Saatchi completes what Marcel Duchamp initiated: the de-estheticization and ultimately devaluation of art. There is no longer any such thing as art that is intrinsically art. It all depends on who backs whatever they're backing as art -- who makes an argument that convinces us that it is art, if never with any clear, definitive understanding of what it means to say that it is art. We are never sure what makes it so special that we are willing to accord it the "status and dignity of art," as Andr Breton said Duchamp did when he labeled banal objects as works of art, in effect graduating them from naive second-class citizenship to sophisticated, aristocratic treasures of civilization. Intellectualizing banal objects into stillborn works of art, he made an ironical case for art while undermining it. (Duchamp, incidentally, was obsessed with money, a fact documented in the "Dada in New York" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Where intellectuals once gambled on the meaning and significance of art -- and Duchamp's readymades are intellectual gambles that would collapse into triviality without the interminable theory that backs them -- Hatton and Walker make it clear that only money, audaciously betting that what it bets on will be an art-historical winner, gives art meaning and significance. Intellectuals don't mean a damn in the world of money, which now has its own legitimacy -- it alone has intrinsic value. They are simply advertisements for the art, just as Saatchi, who made his fortune in advertising, chooses art that calls attention to itself, preferably with all the blatancy of an advertisement, as Hatton and Walker argue. Their message is that so-called art has no inner dignity and social status apart from the dignity and status that money and advertising give it. They also show that there is no real risk involved: Saatchi makes money by dumping art that seems like a bad bet on the art market (most famously Sandro Chias work). The dumping itself makes the art a bad bet, that is, devalues it artistically -- after all, the only value it had was the value of the money bet on it.

The book begins with an account of the founding and growth of the advertising empire of Charles and Maurice Saatchi, showing how their work for Margaret Thatcher put them over the top. They eventually lost control of their empire, but Charles had begun to invest in art, first by collecting it, then by opening a gallery which doubled as a museum. He eventually became a patron, cultivating artists -- many of whom were slavishly submissive to him, whatever their disclaimers (after all, he enriched them) -- and finally organizing the so-called "Sensation," "Neurotic Realism," and "Young British Artists" (yBa) movements. He became prominent on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Gallery, and began making gifts to the latter -- another way of promoting his purchases and gaining power over the system of art information, as well as stifling critical dissent.

Hatton and Walker document Saatchi's buying and selling of art and its profound effect on the art market as well as on the conception of art. They show how he in effect controlled the production as well as distribution of art. Most subtly, they show how his efforts to make a quick buck from art led to the production of quick art -- "amateurism," as they call it. They show how art is trying to emulate the speed with which money moves in a global economy. Clearly, the changing value of art on the global art market reflects the changing value of money in the global economy.

They also analyze its effect on artists, most worthily Damien Hirst, whom Hatton and Walker compare to Gordon Gekko, the hero of Oliver Stone's 1987 movie Wall Street. "Integrity is bullshit," Hirst said, "I'm not anything at heart. I'm too greedy" (quoted on p. 37). Gekko: "It's all about bucks. . . . Money isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another. This painting here [he points to a Mir], I bought it ten years ago for $60,000. I could sell it today for $600,000. The illusion has become real and the more real it becomes the more desperate they want it -- capitalism at its finest. . . I create nothing. I own" (quoted on p. 114). Gekko is clearly more Saatchi than Hirst.

The book is essentially a sociological analysis, as its use of Thorsten Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption and Raymonde Moulin's analysis of the art market makes clear. Hatton and Walker also offer some trenchant insights into Saatchi's character, based on accounts of his behavior -- apparently as impulsive, and when necessary as ingratiating, as that of much of the British art he supports, or rather uses to make money. There are also many quotations from artists and art thinkers critical of Saatchi's influence, which is generally regarded as pernicious, particularly because it draws attention away from other kinds of art, obscuring awareness of the full range and complexity of contemporary art production.

Saatchi's defenders are also quoted, as though to add a momentary balance to the lopsided case Hatton and Walker make against him. They also show how Saatchi's collecting of British art coincided with Thatcher's -- and Anthony Blair's -- efforts to "re-brand" Britain as a hot entrepreneurial society, thus helping it shed its clichd image as a hide-bound tradition-oriented society, where the landed gentry and propriety mattered more than rootless money and slick success.

The Saatchis, who immigrated to Britain from Iran, are certainly examples of the new upward mobility that both the Tories and New Labor encourage. Hatton and Walker make it clear that Saatchi is not corrupt; for them, the system is necessarily corrupt in capitalism. What they neglect to note is that it has encouraged and supported a good deal of important art that has nothing to do with the kind of quick-fix art that Saatchi generally admired -- art of lasting not simply market value, that is, art that transcends the capitalist system to offer values that from Hatton and Walker's standpoint are alien to it.

Nonetheless, Hatton and Walker do make it clear that to have power over art, as Saatchi does, is to have the ultimate power that money can buy.


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.



 
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