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The new seekers

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

Over the past year or so, art world insiders have queued up to denounce the current state of the contemporary art world. Charles Saatchi started the ball rolling with a column at the end of 2011 in the Guardian. Breaking his self-imposed ban on interviews or writing, he launched a withering attack on an art world that, according to him, had descended to ‘the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard’. Around the same time, the American collector Adam Lindemann wrote an article in the New York Observer about why he would not be attending Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the most high-profile international art fairs, which, he complained, had become one endless round of parties filled with faux-collectors.

Predictably, the articles by Saatchi and Lindemann, particularly the latter, got short shrift from commentators, who argued that both were seasoned collectors seemingly annoyed that younger collectors with more purchasing power had muscled them aside. More recently, however, disavowals of the contemporary art world have come from other quarters. Dave Hickey, a well-known art critic, announced his semi-retirement (he is continuing to write material for three anthologies and one more book). Hickey’s reasons were wide-ranging, but most specifically he objected to the growth and change of the art world. ‘I went into the art world because I thought it was private, because I thought it was nice manners with sex and drugs …there’s no middle class any more — there’s a courtier class, that would be you and me. We’re intellectual headwaiters to very rich people.’

Then Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, a popular insider’s account of the art market and an auction analyst for the Economist, announced that she would no longer write about the art market. Her reasons, listed in an article for the Italian art magazine TAR, included the suggestion of market manipulation: ‘Tightknit cabals of dealers and speculative collectors count on the fact that you will report record prices without being able to reveal the collusion behind how they were achieved.’ Hickey also refers to alleged manipulation: ‘Lately there’s been a fashion for covert chandelier bidding, in which five collectors who own the work of a certain artist throw in $50,000 each and bid a work by that artist up to a higher price…. This raises the price of what they already have. Then they sell it.’

All of this has caused a certain amount of introspection and finger-wagging in the art world. London’s Institute of Contemporary Art held a talk last month entitled ‘The End of the Art World…?’, which claimed to address ‘the profound sea change presently gripping the art world …[and] examine the perceived backlash against Contemporary Art.’

The art historian Julian Stallabrass, an early critic of Young British Art and Charles Saatchi in his 1999 book High Art Lite, penned a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece in the Art Newspaper noting that ‘the picture of the élite continuing to spend their fortunes on vacuous geegaws is bound to look less pleasing than it once did’.

A number of commentators, including Stallabrass, have pointed to double standards here, noting how these new critics of the art world are guilty of being responsible for the structures that they now reject. Saatchi built his collection through some astute early purchases of artists that he later cashed in at auction to fund subsequent, larger acquisitions. Hickey was a prominent voice against the issue-based, politically-heavy art of the 1990s with his championing of market-friendly beauty in contemporary art in his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. Lindemann is specifically mentioned by Thornton as one party in the ‘collision of financial interests’ behind the sky-high prices of Urs Fischer, the 39-year-old Swiss artist who is currently a darling of the contemporary auctions. Meanwhile the allegations of auction-house insider-dealing might have an element of truth, but are hardly new.

Not only is there a clear sense here of the founders of an exclusive club being upset at the riff-raff now being allowed into the roped-off section once reserved for them. There is also a none too subtle them-and-us subtext in Saatchi’s reference to oiligarchs and Hickey’s amusingly frank admission when asked what he missed about the art world of old: ‘I miss being élitist.’

Lurking behind these complaints is an old guard that is freaked by the realities of a globalised market. Globalisation was first signposted by curators in the 1990s in large-scale exhibitions that revelled in finding obscure artworks that weightily pronounced on a globalising world — a trend which had its apotheosis in the 11th edition of Documenta, the five-yearly survey of art that is accepted as the contemporary art world’s most important institutional show.

Held in 2002, Documenta XI included among its many exhibits an eight-hour film about a journey through the Mongolian taigam, a six-and-half-hour documentary on multiple monitors about Inuit life, and Steve McQueen’s film Western Deep, which followed the gloomy descent of miners in a lift in a South African goldmine. Its vision of globalisation was of something serious, politicised and economically impoverished — these works featured subject matter about difficult labour conditions, poor pay and tough lives. (And difficulty itself was made manifest by the sheer effort needed to sit through hours-long films with no narrative.)

This ‘difficult’ version of globalisation was welcomed by the old guard, with many exhibitions following the template of Documenta XI. But it ignored a key ingredient of globalisation: the spread of wealth, which spawned a new breed of collector. Carlos Slim and the Qatari royal family, for example, showed not the remotest interest in collecting seven-hour films about Inuit life. Instead, having hired the services of prominent art advisers, they set about buying up the work of about 50 contemporary artists, whose prices were already being driven up by American and European collectors. The new oligarchs, oiligarchs, Chinese and Brazilian collectors’ quest to secure acquisitions as quickly as possible had the side-effect of further driving up prices.

The most significant of these new collectors has been the state of Qatar, which emerged as the world’s most powerful collector towards the end of the last decade. Clear figures and records of acquisition are difficult to come by, but one of the most revealing reports on its ambitions was published last October by artprice, an internet search engine used by many collectors. The study noted that the ratio of searches on its database per head of the Qatari population was around 45 times higher than that of Germany and stated that ‘we have observed intense searches on artists like Richard Serra, Murakami, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois and Paul Cézanne’. So this is no random shopping list: the Qatari royal family is buying the base-layer of an instant museum collection (or, rather, several museum collections), whose contents have been determined by a previous generation of almost exclusively American and European collectors.

Saatchi and Hickey won’t find much consolation in the fact that the art worlds in the emerging economies of China and India are following this template and show little reverence for the old rules. It looks as though the new breed of collecters is here to stay and the old guard will either have to come to terms with the new ways of a globalised art market or quit: as Hickey says in his ‘retirement’ interview, ‘I used to know everyone in the art world. Now I wouldn’t want to.’

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