Sensationalists: people who might convince us.

I have covid, and maybe some of that ‘brain fog’ so this may be foolish on all kinds of levels. But I want to write something about modern art and I have just watched Saatchi, Hirst, Emin & co on the tellybox.

Let’s start with a wee bit of credit. BBCiplayer Arts is a treasure trove; one which I dip into regularly, especially when that What’s On, Bruv? moment drops. (There’s always something on the iplayer).

More rank positivity: it’s my opinion that the overwhelming majority of artists (yup, even contemporary ones) work with a huge amount of integrity and even honour. They ask the Big Questions for us and almost without exception their work is deeper, better and more multi-layered than we perceive. Broadly, we chronically undervalue what they do.

Public understanding of and respect for modern art is generally an embarrassment, reflective of the stupidity and bigotry of (for example) The Daily Mail – which unsurprisingly features in the 3-part series.

Morons at the Mail, poor or tokenistic arts education and profound levels of ignorance have engineered a situation where we are a) visually illiterate b) suspicious and small-minded and c) too bloody lazy to stand in front of an artwork and let it do its job – beguile us, transport us, challenge us. This, for what it’s worth, is my context; the belief that art matters and that artists carry that privilege of being our conscience with courage and often a deep, deep, incorruptible honesty.

I’m happy to out myself as some kind of enthusiast rather than a bona fide expert. I watch and read about art and even Theories of Art. ( I know, weird). So Sensationalists, a series about Young British Artists/that London scene, whilst not necessarily being top of the list, was always going to get a look.

I found it relatively disappointing. The subtitle ‘Bad Girls and Boys of British Art’ maybe didn’t do us any favours. It wasn’t entirely cheap and headlinetastic but the casual clumping-together of two very different social phenomena – punk and the dance/rave scene – was just one example of rather lazy inference. Those warehouse parties were all bout loved-up escapism. Punk spat at the politics of the universe and the depravity and (yes!) immorality of capitalism/the Music Bizz.

I’m not sure if any of the YBA were punks. There was subversion, yes, of the laughable Arts Establishment and there was lots of punky mischief. And of course that whole being on the lash thing smacks of ‘edginess’. But the utterly central role of Saatchi and (some of) the artists’ complicity in both the rather shameless hedonism and ultimate gentrification of parts of East Landun do ask questions. Whilst respecting that right and even imperative for artists to ask those Big Questions, might we ask why much of the YBA cannon is apolitical? (Cue the arguments for it being ‘bigger than politics’)…

Hirst is a fascinating man. Perverse, savvy, brilliant and possibly lost. I may need to look harder at the whole of his output because it’s ver-ry easy to conclude that his obsession with the business of art is a joke that only needed telling once. I really don’t want to traduce him so let’s put on the record the signature contribution – telling, shocking, reverberating, truly powerful works of art. (You know which ones). Installations which announced something new and did transform a feebly necrophiliac industry. But, in the absence of a killer interview or similar, and with the sense of potential wankerdom looming largeish- Groucho Club Laddism, endless wealth-gathering – what are we to make of him?

My default position remains. That shark/those cattle were profound.

Sensationalists is okaay and I recommend you watch. Understand we need Popular Arts Coverage but I wanted and think the seismic lurch into scary, conceptual art required some elite-level voices. (They don’t have to, obvs) but many wonderful artists talk or write spectacularly about art, or their work.

A recent doc on Munch and Emin utterly vindicated the latter as a Serious Artist. Her real, human messiness and her cheapish, temporary East End Squat-zone Posse mischief rightly got an airing in the series but, interestingly, pretty much the only Brilliant Mind on display in Sensationalists was Jake Chapman. (I know – FUCKFACEs!)

Emin can talk. Chapman can plainly talk. Given the poor understanding abroad for the leap into Art of Ideas, we needed more articulate people. People who might convince us.

Saatchi and me…

Is the currently invigorating air of free-market/un-market revolution swirling and beeping its way into the contemporary art scene, I wonder?  Is it even being blackberried by its very own, from within its very own hub, rather than from without, by militant techno-geeks or the Urban Poor?   What, in fact, is occurring bro’?

If Charles Saatchi (himself) is sending out the incendiary messages – whilst presumably firing up on latte and danger-muffin in some metropolitan caff – then maybe, on this occasion, the New Disillusioned are superfluous.  The art scene may implode without recourse to occupation/immolation from uncutters or black blockers or

Those of you who missed the minority interest hoohaa not kicking but maybe shuffling off last week following Saatchi’s Guardian article please sign on here; for another thoroughly modern story is being (un?)told.  Here is the alleged figuration thing … the facts as recognised or… performed.

The boy Saatchi – actually too super-annuated to be coolly associated with rebellion, despite his impressive record for supporting Wacky New Stuff – has really launched one, really gone off on one against his fellow contemporary art enthusiasts.  (And frankly – good on ‘im!)  The essence of what he says is that being a buyer amongst the current crop is “comprehensively and indisputably vulgar”.

He goes on

It is the sport of the Euro-trashy, hedgefundy Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art-dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard.

He goes on again

Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? … Do they simply enjoy having easily recognised big-brand-name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth?

It is, therefore a pretty spiky appraisal of those he rubs shoulders with.  Surprisingly, I have no direct contact with either Mr Saatchi or the average oiligarch, so please take any remarks I contribute with a substantial pinch of something that may or may not be actual salt or a symbol of salt.

However, Charles and I are alike in that we do have a certain general respect for contemporary artists, whilst knowing that this goes against the grain of popular understanding.  He has I think genuinely supported – arguably ‘made’ – substantial British artists such as Hirst and Emin through a belief that they say something real and important about now as well as because of their capacity to excite coverage.  He (no doubt having read my authoritative material on the subject) fully understands the difficulty many folks have with Modern Art; namely that they just don’t get it because it either doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to or ‘any fool could do it’.

Saatchi has put a considerable wedge behind the argument that c’mon, you just really have to look – engage – a bit more and other things become apparent.  For art is no longer (just) about how masterfully you can draw or paint.  It may now be the case that is essential to enter the construct that is the painting/photo/video/performance in order to make judgement upon it.  This might admittedly be more ‘difficult’ than was historically the case but THAT IS PROGRESS.  You, the viewer, have been having it too easy and you may now have to a) gawp for longer and b) even earn the right to make a decision about the artist’s talent and authenticity.

Okay I’m offering a lot given my unfamiliarity with Charles’s everything but these are surely logical extensions, or possibly prefixes, to where he ends up – i.e. IN DEFENCE OF THE REAL ARTIST – who may, surprisingly, be alive now, making art through signs or symbols or soundscapes rather than with lines we immediately recognise.

It may be argued that a leap of faith is necessary to accept some contemporary art as ‘real’, as ‘true’.  That’s maybe fair.  However it has always been the case that critical faculties must be exercised in order to appreciate.  Allow the artists to work.  Do not mistake lack of figuration for lack of quality or integrity.  Contemporary artists are making a massive and honourable contribution to our cultural lives – to our lives.   That’s not a quote from Charles Saatchi but I tell you what I think it could be.  And that’s why the presence of so many wealthy airheads on the floors of major gallery openings offends him. desperately oppose both the cheap assumption that contemporary art is mainly crap and the notion that it’s okay for the inevitable art market to be populated by phonies.  We are together on the barricade – his a Sheraton Bureau, mine a shopping trolley – lobbing respectively cut glass and potato peelings at the barbarian hordes.  Shouting “Love Not Money!”

So… in this cultural riot… are you with us?