By Melanie Brycki
Everybody wants to know the secrets to success, though the answers are unlikely to come from the lips of Charles Saatchi. Perhaps one of the most powerful collectors in the art world today, his recently published books My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic (2009) and Question (2010), offer little insight into the workings of this entrepreneurial collector‘s mind. Famous for his reclusive nature, Saatchi overcame his aversion for interviews to provide responses to questions put to him by members of the public, art critics, and leading journalists on the topics; ‘art, ads, life, god and othermysteries’. His witty and clever responses are to be expected, given the careful selection process of the questions featured.
Whilst there is a clear focus on art in the first publication, the second leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment about the depth of inquiries. There are pages and pages of nonsensical questions; ‘Football or cricket?’, ’Bus or tube?’, ‘Madonna or Beyonce?’. It is hard to imagine exactly who would be interested in Saatchi’s opinions on such things. These conversational style questions make the reader feel more as though they are getting to know Saatchi on a first date, rather than reading a hard-hitting interview with him. Perhaps this petty banter has been included to distract the reader from gaps surrounding the more important topics of conversation, or even to hide some of the less than satisfactory answers provided by Saatchi; such as his thoughts on the point of art as simply being a means ‘to stop our eyeballs going into meltdown from all the rubbish TV and films’ (Saatchi 2009, p.69). I wonder what this year’s winners of the Emmy and Academy Awards would have to say about that.
Saatchi’s influence on artists and the art market has been a cause for controversy since he started his collection over 40 years ago, and he takes the time to address certain aspects of these issues in the publications. Many objections have been raised to his collecting habits; in particular, his penchant for buying and selling in bulk as well as purchasing works at inflated prices. When asked if concerned about his impact on the market, Saatchi claims he ‘doesn’t mind paying three or four times the market value’ for a work he really wants (Saatchi 2009, p.22). Whilst this kind of turnover can have a significant affect on the market, ultimately the value of any item can only be determined by what somebody is prepared to pay for it. Whilst one can make estimates on the market value of particular works, the true measure is in the proof of the purchase price. Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir has also expressed his theory that there is ‘only one indication for telling the value of paintings, and that is in the sale room’ (Watson 1992, p.xxiv).
If Saatchi’s inflated purchase prices can be passed off as being a routine part of the market, surely his ‘bulk buying’ strategies cannot be ignored. Many have articulated the opinion that if anyone was to collect as much art as Saatchi does they are bound to acquire some good works along the way. Does Saatchi indeed have an “eye” for art or does he just monopolise the market? According to him, there is no skill in collecting. He doesn’t take pride in the purchase of great art, claiming it is the artists who should be proud as they are the one’s with the drive and the ideas (Saatchi 2009, p.116). Peter Watson, author of From Manet to Manhattan: The rise of the Modern Art Market, sees Saatchi’s place in the art world as unresolved and not fully understood. His haphazard and somewhat arbitrary choices in both collecting and trade have resulted in some perplexed and frustrated artists. British Pop Artist Peter Blake is not afraid to speak up about his distaste for the way Saatchi conducts himself, even instructing his dealer not to sell to the collector. In 1998, Blake told an interviewer, ‘I disapprove of his policy of blanket-buying of one artist’s work, which I think creates a false market’. Sandro Chia is another artist who has voiced his criticism of Saatchi, fuelled by the ‘purging’ of six of Chia’s paintings in 1985. In an interview titled ‘Making Money, Making Art’, where artists were asked to comment on the ‘hyper-inflated art market’, Chia muses ‘the economy itself has become the work of art, acquiring all the qualities a work of art should have: pitilessness, ruthlessness, cynicism, grandiosity, communicativeness, abstraction’ (Chia 1990, p.138). The media has claimed that Saatchi’s dispersals had destroyed Chia’s career. However, the artist says that whilst the incident made him ‘a little famous’, it did not ruin him (Chia 1990 p.138).
In discussing the art market, Saatchi makes some interesting comments on its nature. He highlights the idea that what people buy and sell is by definition ‘the market’, raising questions as to whether or not his actions can indeed distort the art market or are simply part of its nature. As art critic Robert Hughes pointed out in his 1991 book, Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, ‘there is no historical precedent for the price structure of art in the 20th century’. Given this, it is safe to say art is indeed a speculative market, one that is influenced by and responsive to political, economic and social trends and events across the world and across time. However, it has only been in the last 50 years that art has been viewed as an avenue for making money, a phenomenon that ‘began as a trickle, turned into a stream and finally became a great roaring flood’ (Hughes 2009). Hughes drives this point home, sighting the two-year period from 2008 to 2009 in which Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses sold $12.5billion worth of art.
Interestingly, with all this exchange of art and money, it is often the dealers and collectors trading the works who benefit whilst the artists themselves gain far smaller returns. In the 2009 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, we witness the artist’s aggravation first hand. After the collector Robert Scull auctioned off some of Robert Rauschenberg’s work in 1973 for sky-high prices, he was confronted by the artist; ’I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit!’ Unfazed by Rauschenberg’s attack, Scull claimed that any new works made by Rauschenberg would consequently earn the artist more money, claiming artist and collector work for each other. This famous 1973 auction was a turning point in the art world, where emphasis shifted from aesthetics to money, and it has been said that this single event, more than any other, kicked off the art market as we know it today (Kaplan 2010).
Though he is clearly entrenched in the speculative bubble that is the art market Saatchi doesn’t always speak highly of it. In My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic, he details a game he used to play with the late critic David Sylvester where the two would discuss which artist, curator, dealer, collector or critic they would least like to be stranded on a desert island with. An entire page is dedicated to the discussion of each category. He suggests many dealers would be ‘better suited to manning the door of a night-club’, given their ability to alienate potential buyers, and criticizes curators for their inadequacies in putting together anything more than a ‘Groundhog Day’ show with the help of their ‘Bluffer’s notes on art theory’. The work of a good art critic is ‘sublime’, although Saatchi suspects some critics could have been just as fulfilled writing about travel or gardening instead of art. His stance on artists is, by contrast, short and sweet, ‘I love them all’ (Saatchi 2009, p.61-67). Throughout the books, he consistently praises artists and tells the reader how being an artist is the ‘toughest’ and ‘cruelest’ job out there. Perhaps not all would agree with his sentiment. Not surprisingly, Collectors, like Saatchi himself, are described as ’much less pretentious than most other inhabitants of the art world’. (2009, p.125)
Saatchi insists, ‘nobody would want to see a film about me, including me’ (2010, p.94). Nonetheless his two books appear to be deliberate teasers to court attention so that readers are left wanting more. Whilst he acknowledges his oversized ego, Saatchi claims he is generally quite modest; deep down he is just like the rest of us, finding inner peace (as many do) on the lavatory. On July 1st 2010, Saatchi announced his plans to donate to the British nation more than 200 works from his collection (£25 million worth). Upon Saatchi’s retirement, his Chelsea gallery will essentially be nationalised and renamed the Museum of Contemporary Art, London. Whilst this act of philanthropy is no doubt beneficial to the arts sector, there remains concern as to who will own the works on behalf of the nation and details about how the gallery will operate are yet to be decided. (Brown, 2010). One thing is for sure; after Saatchi is gone his legacy will remain.
Always an advertising man, is Saatchi.
Brown, M. ‘Charles Saatchi donates 200 works to the nation‘, The Guardian UK, Thursday 1st July, 2010
Hatton, R. & Walker, J. Supercollector: A critique of Charles Saatchi, Institute of Artology, London, 2005 (3rd edition)
Hughes, R. Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, Collins-Harvill, London, 1991
Hughes, R. The Mona Lisa Curse, director Mandy Chang, executive producer Nick Kent, Oxford Film and TV, 2009
Kaplan, F. ‘ Showing a Couple’s Eye for Art (and Money), New York Times, April 9th, 2010
Saatchi, C. My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic, Phaidon Press, London & New York, 2009
Saatchi, C. Question, Phaidon Press, London & New York, 2010
Watson, P. From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market, Random House Inc. New York, 1992
Wei, L. ‘Making Art, Making Money: 13 Artists Comment’, Art in America, vol.78 July 1990