To think that the burning of art was Saatchi's come-uppance, or that the Momart fire represented the end of an era, is imbecilic. But to laugh? That may be OKby Sebastian Smee / July 24, 2004 / Leave a comment
Two idiotic notions emerged from the recent fire in an east London storage warehouse which frazzled hundreds of works of art. The works lost included over 50 paintings by the late Patrick Heron, a decade’s worth of work by the painter Gillian Ayres, and some of the most notorious works owned by Charles Saatchi, including the Chapman brothers’ Hell and the tent by Tracey Emin entitled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With.
The first idiocy was the idea that Charles Saatchi and some of the artists whose work was lost were getting their come-uppance after years of hype and charlatanism. Bad art comes to a bad end – it was the line run in several newspapers and the reaction of many who have no time for Saatchi’s taste.
The second idiocy was the idea that the fire marked the end of something – an era, or a phenomenon; call it Britart, the Saatchi years or the decade of Damien, Tracey and the Chapmans.
Let’s take each of these responses, before ending with another, more sensitive question: was it OK to laugh?
Charles Saatchi, along with Hirst, Emin and the Chapmans, were getting their come-uppance only if you are a malicious ferret. The source of such schadenfreude can only be envy of the kind that resents people becoming famous and earning money for activities that are not conventionally productive. It emerges from a shrivelled, proudly ill-informed vision of art. I say all this as someone who gets a kick out of only the very best of Damien Hirst’s work, has little time for Tracey Emin and who finds the Chapman brothers philosophically revolting. So it is not that I personally mourn the loss of Emin’s tent, or Hirst’s cynical spot paintings. (On the other hand, I do regret the loss of the Chapman brothers’ Hell, a set of nine model tableaux of Nazi concentration camps, perhaps because a philosophically revolting stance can occasionally produce something extreme enough to be interesting.)
Many arguments can be mounted against Britart generally and Saatchi in particular – I have mounted some of them in this column – but when you weigh these against the energy and excitement these artists and Saatchi have brought to cultural life not only in London but around the world, they do not amount to a case for come-uppance, least of all arson.
The second absurdity – the idea that…