Contemporary Art’s Suicide Bombers
By Ben Lewis
Last week the art world experienced the equivalent of a suicide bombing campaign. Charles Saatchi, who runs his own magnificent contemporary art museum in London, wrote contemptuously about the lack of taste of today’s billionaire art collectors, while Adam Lindemann, one of the first US collectors of Murakami and Hirst, called for a boycott of the Miami art fair. As Oscar Wilde would have said, one disillusioned art collector’s assault on the art world might be considered a freak event, but two (in the space of a week) suggests a coordinated suicide bomber campaign.
In the Guardian, on 2nd December, Charles Saatchi wrote with a vehemence, which stunned the art world, that “Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard.” Art now exercised a “mystical power …over the super-rich”, he complained as if he was the first to notice, because it makes them look “refined, tasteful and hip, surrounded by their achingly cool masterpieces.” Next came his recantation. Once he thought that any increase in interest in art was a good thing, but not any more! Saatchi concluded with that disarmingly bold self-deprecation that is such a British skill – “Even a self-serving narcissistic show-off like me finds this new art world too toe-curling for comfort.”
If you know a little about the history of Charles Saatchi’s acquisitions and sales of works of art, you may detect a note of hypocrisy. ‘Chequebook Charlie’ is known for spending vast sums on art himself. He has reportedly has been buying plenty of works from jpegs sent to him by email. He is known for buying work for knock-down prices, for which he bargains hard, then exhibiting the stuff in his gallery space, before finally selling it for a massive profit – Damien Hirst and Peter Doig being two of many artists whose work he has used in this way. But Saatchi tells us that there is a difference between himself and the rest of them. “These people” he suggests, “enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes.” While he, on the other hand, tells us that, “any profit I make selling art goes back into buying more art.” That is probably true, but it still doesn’t stop it being a way for him to increase his wealth and status, just like those he criticises.
Adam Lindemann is guilty of a variant of the same hypocritical denunciation as his British colleague, though his benefits from some self-aware irony. Lindemann is an intriguing figure in the contemporary art world, at once an insider and an outsider. He famously sold Jeff Koons heart for $23m at auction in 2007, only six months after he took possession of it for a price of only $3m, antagonising Koons’ dealer, the world’s most powerful gallerist, Larry Gagosian. Lindemann’s published an entertaining though anodyne book on collecting contemporary art a few years ago and he now writes a regular column for the American newspaper, The New York Observer, He writes well but he talks up artists and defends auction buddies in ways that reek of conflict of interest.
On November 29th, he declared in the New York Observer that “I’m not going to Art Basel Miami Beach this year. I’m through with it, basta.” and he called on everyone else to boycott it. “Why should I be seen rubbing elbows with all those phonies and scenesters, people who don’t even pretend they are remotely interested in art?” he asked. He amusingly listed all the billionaire’s parties and dinners he had been invited to which he wouldn’t be attending, and then went on to launch his own semi-serious anti-art-world campaign called “Occupy Art Basel Miami” Very droll.
Lindemann’s op-ed competed with Saatchi’s in the hypocrisy stakes. Ten years ago, he was himself one of the newbie collectors, prowling round art fairs with lots of money to spend on his new hobby, and enjoying all the art world parties he got invited to. His art-buying helped establish a new brash and glitzy aesthetic in art, as he bought work from Bling artist-businessmen like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Anselm Reyle and Japanese manga pop artist Takashi Murakami. Does he think he made any mistakes himself? If only! Self-criticism is not yet on the agenda, but now Lindemann is himself complaining about the quality of the art. The art served up at art fairs, he said, is “merchandise, eye candy, commercial and just plain boring.” He harked back to an art fair golden age – just a few years ago, though! – when collectors went there to discover smaller galleries with unknown young artists. In fact I first met, filmed and interviewed Adam at the Armory Show art fair in New York in 2003, when he attempted to buy work by the now high-priced artist Wangechi Mutu. He left empty-handed – all the work had already been taken! Today Lindemann is jaded: “I’ve been to too many fairs, I’ve seen the same stuff over and over again for years. It has lost its lustre and much of its purpose, so why should I bother?” Even so, Lindemann did turn up for Miami, prompting a lot of gossip column stories. He said his protest had been an ironic one.
So what is the motivation for these two outbursts? One could view them cynically as the roars of two old lions past their prime. Every few years there is a Oedipal upheaval in the art world. A mature generation of art collectors complain that art has now gotten far too expensive and the younger generation have far more money than them and less taste. They declare to their friends and sometimes in public that they have had enough, and art isn’t what it used to be. A few years ago American collectors like the Rubells were saying it. Nowadays you can hear prominent German collectors like Ingvild Goetz and Harald Falckenberg say much the same thing. In the seventies and eighties, there were others, but I wasn’t around then.
Saatchi and Lindemann used to be two of the bigger fish in the art world pond – now they are just prawns on the seabed. They have been swept aside by Russian oligarch and Gulf Sheikh billionaires.
But there’s a couple things that makes these recantations more important than others that have come before. Firstly, in previous eras, a surge in prices for art followed economic growth – this time the opposite is the case. It’s the economic downturn, the fragility of commodities and shares that are boosting investment in art. The worse it gets for most of us, the more art costs – that’s a grim economic formula! Secondly, in other recessions, political protest has been directed against governments, banks, big corporations, but not the art world. But this time the art world is a target. The origins of Lindemann and Saatchi’s thoughts can surely be traced back to a unique little-reported protest that took place on February 16th in New York, when protestors occupied and disrupted a contemporary art sale, unfurling a banner that read “Orgy of the Rich.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKtznT4kEFY). It seems that that message, having been brought to the heart of the art world, has been taken to heart by some.
Whatever their defects, Saatchi and Lindemann share one thing in common. Against the background of today’s global economic crisis, they find the conspicuous consumption of contemporary art revolting – and rightly so. The tougher the austerity measures, the higher the prices paid for art – that’s the logic so it would seem. The art market’s most thorough investigator and commentator Sarah Thornton recently revealed in The Economist that a record was broken for the most expensive work of art ever sold: a painting, believed to be by a French Post-Impressionist went to the Qataris for $250m in a private sale. The art world is feeling a little guilty, it seems.
Saatchi and Lindemann are coming to the realisation that the great contemporary art bubble – both in its prices and the choice of art that costs those prices – shows that something has gone terribly wrong with both the world economy and the human imagination. The prices paid for contemporary art by today’s billionaires reveal nothing about the quality of art. They speak to us about the Bladerunner-type society that is emerging, divided between a tiny elite of superrich and the rest of us, the underclass, who are losing our pensions. They speak to us about the fragility of the economic climate, in which contemporary art seems a relatively safe asset to invest in – and yet appropriately the one with no intrinsic value whatsoever. They speak to us about financial transactions of borderline legality and of insider dealing in the unregulated market that is the art world. They speak to us about where much of the money spent by bail-out funds on buying bonds went – into the pockets of financiers and speculators.
There is a sense that the market is itself falling victim to an analogous problem of inequality that besets the broad economy. The market is relying on an ever smaller elite of ever-richer collectors, supporting the market by paying ever larger sums for a tiny number of works of art. Many collectors have now become priced out and feel themselves demoted into a second division of the market. They feel betrayed by a system that they built. Lindemann and Saatchi are the first of these disgruntled whistleblowers. That kind of art market is not sustainable in the medium term.