I Was Wrong, Charles - You Have Done Us All a Service ; One of Charles Saatchi's Fiercest Critics Now Believes His Former Bete Noire Deserves a Knighthood for Bringing the Latest International Art to London

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CHARLES Saatchi used to be the enemy. He it was, not Nicholas Serota and his henchmen at the Tate, who through the work of megalomaniacs who thought themselves artists (German, American and British) introduced us to the notion of shock, horror and nausea as proper constituents of art. And he it was who, in the autumn of 1997, assisted by the Royal Academy -- the oldest and most practised whore in the English art world -- affronted our sensibilities with Sensation, the exhibition that thrust up our disgusted noses his now notorious Young British Artists.

He gave us fried eggs, a halfconsumed kebab, fruit, vegetables and an upturned bucket as male and female organs, with every protrusion and aperture of the human body on a merry-go-round of misplacement; he gave us the dull interminable ordinariness of daily life in a provincial council house and contrasted it with gaping wounds and frozen blood. As photographs, mutilated window dressers' models and hyper-realistic fibreglass figures fit for Madame Tussauds, all these were presented as art and, like Louis XIV, Saatchi sat back and let happen the predictable deluge of abuse.

Many said he welcomed it, even that he engineered it, for every bishop and MP who questioned the morality of this art, every newspaper columnist who accused him of being a profiteering dealer, gave him free publicity that no advertisement could match, and Sensation established him a kingmaker at least the equal of Serota and the Tate in the contemporary art world. Could Damien Hirst, on the brink of the credit crunch, have emptied his studio for a hundred million pounds had not Saatchi played Svengali to his Trilby a decade earlier?

Most ordinary mortals question Saatchi's motives. Some damn him for buying in bulk and then ruining reputations by selling in bulk; others damn him for his showmanship, for his being the Barnum and Bailey of our day with freaks and aberrations. A couple of London critics of small reputation have scrambled onto his bandwagon and written sycophantic books; others, sceptical at first, have surrendered to the power of his patronage; a few, a very few, have remained obstinately unconverted and have continued to attend his many exhibitions driven only by a sense of dutiful curiosity.

It was at two of these exhibitions -- by German artists who have come to the fore since the unification of Germany in 1989, and of American art produced in the first five years of this century -- that hostile critics began to realise that Saatchi has, ever since he opened his successive collections to the public in March 1985, been performing an important and revealing service neglected by the Tate -- that is showing us Art Now.

In his gallery -- now in its third, most handsome and accessible incarnation in the old Duke of York's Barracks in Chelsea -- this purpose has been even clearer, for in only nine months of activity there he has opened three true blockbusters (that is really big) devoted to current Chinese art, art from the Middle East, and now new Abstract American Art, opening tomorrow. …