Imagine a millionaire who lives on a diet of boiled eggs and iced coffee. He is an altruist and a patron, he is a tyrant and a menace. Imagine that he made the careers of today’s top artists, scandalised the artworld with his unconventional dealings and then wrote a book about how to be the worst you can be. Imagine this that enigma, so prominent in the lives of so many, nonetheless remains a reclusive mystery. Give this figure a trademark blue suit, a buttoned-up white shirt and a shock of black hair. Let me introduce you to Charles Saatchi, the artworld’s Wizard of Oz. But who is Charles Saatchi? And is he friend or foe of the artworld?
The British artworld of today, which only began to emerge in the early nineties from the provincial backwaters of a few Mayfair galleries, has three men at its foundation who in their own ways created the scene. Damien Hirst, of course, was the artist who typified a movement in various well-worn ways, earning fame and fortune with works that people really thought were new and shocking. Jay Jopling was the young, erudite, charming art dealer who choreographed the shenanigans both in the market and cultural spheres, leading to directing one of the world’s exceptional contemporary art galleries. And then there was Saatchi: the aloof millionaire who would buy up an entire show of some young unknown artist, sending the market and the prices loopy, and show them in his plush Hampstead gallery to great ecstacy. If Jopling was the mover trying to build a career as a gallerist, Saatchi was the shaker whose only vested interest was his own money. This made Saatchi powerful, sought-after and ever so slightly dangerous – he had no emotional or business ties with the artists, his buying and his gallery were funded by his independent means, and as a whimsical collector he could sell just as capriciously as he could buy. This is the crux of Saatchi’s unique position and the source of his controversy.
In his exemplary book, High Art Lite, Julian Stallbrass sums up the Saatchi enigma perfectly by saying his reputation was that he would always ‘buy very cheap and pay very late’. He was an adman from ruthless world of business who knew what he wanted and could manipulate the system so that he could get it on his terms. The flipside of this is that Saatchi quickly gained almost messianic status among young artists, who felt that the laying of his hands on their work would assure their careers for life. The mystery of Charles Saatchi, that is, lies in that his seemingly outrageous behaviour is very good for art, but not so good for the market.
Saatchi’s market foibles emerged early on, before he had come to much public attention for them. During the 1980s, at Saatchi & Saatchi, he invested a very great deal in a very respectable and, at the time, very fashionable, art collection. He had extensive holdings of the great blue chip artists of the day, including Schnabel, Koons and Kiefer. Saatchi’s voracious collecting aided and abetted the great art boom of the 80s and played no small part in the meteoric rise of these artists, who at the time were not yet household names, even if they were fairly well established by the time Saatchi got to them. As we know, the market migrates where the money is and it is money which makes artists’ careers, so Saatchi was in his element – the illusion of power over, not just art, but over the lives of human beings, bought with a simple transaction.
But then Saatchi made a dramatic decision, which makes perfect sense if you think about a man’s right to do as he wishes with his justly acquired private property, but contravenes every rule and gentleman’s agreement of the art market.
He decided to sell it. The entire collection. Such a move causes waves of consternation in the art market because it has a detrimental effect on prices if you flood the market with a batch of works by the one artist: so selling all your Schnabels at once makes Shnabels less rare and less precious, since suddenly there are so many available, and thus causes prices to plummet. Saatchi has gleefully done this repeatedly throughout his art-collecting career. Not only does this break the rules of the art market, but such narrowsightedness also contravenes the standard operating procedure of capitalism itself.
This behavior earned Saatchi the wrong sort of legendary status in market circles. But he became another sort of legend in exhibition circles by being both the man about town and the man who is nowhere to be seen. It is well-attested how Saatchi would silently turn up to an exhibition unannounced, skulk around unseen and go home having bought up the entire show. Artists loved this, not just because their unknown, unrecognized work was bought by an important collector, but also because the sheer ghostly mystique of it all was riveting. Aside from his patronage, the artworld thought it a good thing that a powerful collector remained so aloof, so although he was supporting the arts, he was not taking the limelight from the artists.
After the Sensation exhibition of his YBA collection in 1997, and as those artists became more independent of his patronage, Saatchi’s powers began to wane, but that was less to do with his collecting than with his obstinate behavior. Popular rumor has it that the Tate had to cancel a Hirst retrospective because Saatchi would not lend them key Hirst pieces. He got in to a spat with Hirst over the display of a Mini Cooper decorated with Hirst’s trademark spots: Saatchi proudly showed it in his gallery, much to Hirst’s disdain, who said it did not count as one of his artworks. Eventually Hirst bought back from Saatchi his own works. In the Principality of Art, you do not mess with Prince Damien, even if you are one of the men who led him to the throne. Saatchi, who by now was trying to invent a new movement in painting with a series of lackluster shows of his latest acquisitions at his gallery, found himself out in the cold, where art no longer needed him.
But perhaps the surprising fact is that we do need Saatchi as much as ever. Both art and the market are rule-governed, conventionalized systems that operate within defined parameters that they themselves have set. For this very reason, they tend to get stuck in their ways, tend to have fixed ideas about how things should be done and fall into a kind of self-imposed conservatism beyond which they will not see because it works so well for them. Furthermore, art and the market depend for their lives upon everyone without exception playing by the rules; even the so-called rule-breaker artist and galleries who occasionally make waves are playing by rules insofar as they are acting fully within decent expectation.
Its not that the artworld is boring or stuffy, its just that it is a club and like all clubs it has rules and sees no gain in deviating from them.
This is why we need Saatchi to thunder in and shake things up a bit occasionally. He reminds the fundamentally undemocratic artworld that anyone can be a dictator, but only a few choose to use that power to simultaneously help the goodies (the art) and fight the baddies (the market), even if with increasingly bizarre forms of warfare. In short, Saatchi is good for art because he enters a closed system and rejects all its rules, and there’s nothing more refreshing and vital than a conscientious rule-breaker. Sure, he no longer has the power to change a single thing, but so long as there is someone to kick the hornets nest occasionally the hornets will, in their confusion and horror, be kept on their toes.
Words: Daniel Barnes