Is Charles Saatchi, at 70, the Hero of Contemporary Art?

Article excerpt

The YBAs' champion notches up another decade today. We asked two leading critics whether he has been good for artists and audiences

YES

Brian Sewell

It has been Charles Saatchi, not Nicholas Serota at the Tate, who has kept us informed of the world's wilder shores of art since 1997, the year of his Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was then that he introduced the now notorious YBAs (Young British Artists) to the wider public of the Mail, the Mirror and The Sun, revealing that shock, horror, nausea, schoolboy smut and sheer technical incompetence had become the common and proper constituents of art. He then sat back and let happen the predictable deluge of abuse.

Bishops questioned the morality of dummies so mutilated that every protrusion and aperture of the human body had been displaced; MPs gasped at the gaping wounds and frozen blood, and deplored the sexualising of the kebab, the fried egg and the bucket; church and state combined to give Saatchi publicity that no advertisement could match. Columnists accused him of being a profiteering dealer; artists damned him for buying and selling their work in bulk, while praying that he would not ignore their exhibitions; the wails of the few contrary art critics proved futile, and the sycophantic many scrambled on to the Saatchi bandwagon; dealers, curators and collectors surrendered to the influential power of his patronage, and followed obediently.

Since Sensation, Saatchi has mounted many other exhibitions, all of which could have borne the title Art Now, for that has always been their subject - Art Now in Germany, Russia, China, America, the Near East and, above all, in Britain - and we have at last begun to realise that if we know anything of immediately contemporary art, now a global phenomenon, it is because he alone has exhibited it. At Tate Modern, Serota has given us retrospectives of major artists well established in the history of art (on Bankside, Gauguin and Matisse are still modern), but has shown us almost nothing of what is happening today.

As one man's choice, Saatchi's shows are random and pragmatic, perhaps even hasty, certainly impulsive, often undisciplined, but their presence enables us to see that even in this age of extreme internationalism in art, there are still significant national distinctions. His minions write the incomprehensible jargon of contemporary art, but that is to make the pseuds feel comfortable - I fancy that Saatchi himself does not believe a word. I fancy, too, that he does not necessarily like the work he shows us, but shows it because it exists, perhaps represents a new trend and should not be ignored. I fancy that he is as sceptical as any sane man and perhaps performing a cunning and subversive service in undermining contemporary art, in constantly reminding us of its tedious futility. Of one thing I am certain - that he has single-handedly taken over from Tate Modern its prime and vital duty to keep us abreast of contemporary art and its extremes. We should value his endeavour, unique in the history of British patronage. …