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Rogue's gallery: Charles Saatchi

Suddenly, the press dares to criticise contemporary art. A number of coinciding events seem to have focussed a new, less reverential attitude towards the spin of the art world. Damien Hirst's retrospective at the Tate and Anish Kapoor's tower for the Olympics have borne the brunt of criticism in London. Not that these two do not invite harsh criticism in themselves, but last year they did not get it and now they do. The same strange thing happened in the USA, over Maurizio Cattelan's exhibition at the Guggenheim — last year a darling, this year a dud. Familiar artists with familiar styles; and these projects were years in the planning, so we could hardly have been shocked by them. I suspect they are picked on, now, as examples of something which once commanded timid respect, but with which we have lost patience. It is not Hirst and Kapoor, or Cattelan who have changed; it is we ourselves. We have not been disappointed; we have become disillusioned. But how? And why now?

Significantly, the most pointed criticism has been directed less at the art than the art market. Hari Kunzru, in the Guardian, looked at Damien Hirst's use of the market as an essential subject in his art, then suggested that Hirst's reputation depends on his having "single-handedly remade the global art market in his image". Felix Salmon, for Reuters, amended Kunzru's argument: "Hirst . . .  has moved himself out of the art market and into the consumption-goods market: he manufactures art works, sets the prices for them, and sells them to anybody willing to buy them. Once you have bought a Hirst, you then exhibit it as a way of displaying your wealth and, um, taste." 

Kapoor's ArcelorMittal Orbit, commissioned for the Olympic Park, provoked a different debate, over the state's irresponsibility in sponsoring art so inflated by fashion and so unappealing to the populace. Libby Purves, in The Times, called the tower "a twisted red object . . . painfully visible from the Stratford train for weeks. It is Britain's biggest public sculpture, cost £22.7 million, of which you and I paid more than £3 million." 

The folly of public institutions submitting to the authority of the art market was also addressed in New York. Jed Perl, in the New Republic, wrote: "The truth is that Cattelan's presence at the Guggenheim has nothing to do with what the public may or may not want. Cattelan is at the Guggenheim because the big money in the art business is behind him." Perl noted that a minor Cattelan, a miniature model of two elevator doors, had recently been sold for more than a million dollars. These exhibition criticisms follow from a variety of broader art world exposés. Bryan Appleyard, for Intelligent Life, analysed Andy Warhol sales. Warhol is "the art market's one-man Dow Jones . . . nothing bounced out of recession quite like a Warhol . . . the rise in his average auction prices between 1985 and the end of 2010: 3,400 per cent. The contemporary-art market as a whole rose by about half that, the Dow by about a fifth."

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Neil Rodger
May 25th, 2013
6:05 PM
Thank you for an excellent article. I have only one caution: throughout the article the "art world" is presented as a monolithic structure or some gigantic and whimsical force, whereas in reality there is a great deal going on in this sphere which may, in time, surprise those who now so refer to it. The patent corruption and weakening are by no means universal, but are merely endemic to those who make the most noise. But certainly, in his analysis of the state of that part of the "art world" which he sees, the author's views are unimpeachable, and their expression very welcome.

Lynette O'Kane
November 1st, 2012
2:11 PM
Thankyou Thank You thank you!!!!! I friggin hope the tide is finally turning. I have been an artist for over 40 years % taught college art for 20. I still make ( & sell) art, but not in the "system" that I gave up on years ago. I have never regreted it, am not bitter, but still delighted that the sham may finally begin to tumble. Again: THANKS

Peter Jacobson
October 31st, 2012
8:10 PM
As an art fan, it'd be pretty dismal to put total stock in Damien Hirst. I understand he's a pretty looming figure in the contemporary market but is everything else beholden to him? Does the whole thing pivot on the one guy who's at the top of the financial heap? Sounds like we do need some new artists. A few things: Your art critic from Vice. He isn't saying he 'got' art when is was cool and doesn't 'get' it now that's it's uncool. That is completely your imposition of theory. I took this quote to mean that the course of his education and attending openings didn't necessarily create a simple explanation of art over time. This critic says nothing here about this response having anything to do with how you've understood the market to have changed. Did Cattelan's Guggenheim show go over badly with NY critics? On a glance back at the mainstream press I'd call the NYTimes and the NYorker cautiously approving, while NY magazine was thrilled with it. And for a show that was about the market and had nothing to do with what the public may or not have wanted...wasn't it also a big hit with the public? I'd gathered it might have been the Guggenheim's best attended show in a decade so there's that. For what that's worth. Is putting a Twombly next to Poussin really all just investment protecting? I like Campbell-Johnson's take about the art being the winner and further... Isn't it really the public who has the most to gain from these juxtapositions? Done thoughtfully, the Twombly is total bait for a younger, yes cooler, audience to check out the dustier Poussin. Call me naive. What should the new super rich be saying about art if they and it are not fabulous? I'm curious. Maybe you'd have more faith if you lived in the US. Over here, Damien Hirst isn't taken as a perfect synthesis of importance and money. I have hope there's still glamour to be regained.

Lisa Paul Streitfeld
October 31st, 2012
1:10 PM
Thank you for this really fabulous article. It explains why I stopped reviewing contemporary art, dominated as it is by the conceptual, thereby dismissing the body, and the public. In summing up the current mood of desperation, it gives hope for a new movement to arise from the collective body...

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