Having had much cause to mention Charles Saatchi in my Guardian column over the past five years, I was pleased when this most secretive of men finally agreed to meet me around the time of the opening of his new private museum. I found, more to other people’s surprise than my own, that he was a nice enough chap, a Guardian reader no less. Youthful, remarkably shy for a man in his profession, he was clearly in love with his collection in the way that little boys are in love with their train sets. It is the largest and most famous collection of contemporary art in Britain, and he adds to it obsessively, sometimes buying up entire exhibitions. It is so large that he can only hang a section of it at a time. He himself had supervised the hanging and was now clucking around the opening show wondering if perhaps the galvanised iron relief by Donald Judd wouldn’t have looked better over there, where the green lacquered one was. The two things that struck me most forcefully about him were his innocence – he had, after all, agreed to speak to me ‘off the record’ despite all the horrible innuendoes I had made about him, and his ordinariness, in my Guardian column. A boyish 41-year-old, casually smart in a floppy double-breasted suit of indeterminate adman brown, he didn’t look like the devil at all and kept asking me if I minded when he stubbed his cigarettes out in my saucer. Of course I minded. But I wasn’t about to say so, not there, not then.
For I was drunk at the time – on the heady alcohol of modern art, I hasten to add. My head was spinning from the impact of the marvels that I was being shown. For some time now a rumour had been circulating the art world that Charles Saatchi was building himself a museum. There was talk of a converted warehouse in St John’s Wood. The architect was named as Max Gordon. What the rumour had not prepared me for was the size of the place. There are six galleries in the complex, and the two main ones must be the biggest exhibition galleries in Britain. A Donald Judd sculpture 80 feet long sits against the wall in the central room and looks distinctly lonely with so much space around it. Saatchi’s museum is ten times larger than the Serpentine, nearly four times larger than the Whitechapel Gallery. As rich men’s dreams go, it is the nearest thing to a Xanadu of the arts that we have seen in London since the building of Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Victorian plutocrats with their passion for leaving behind museums in their name did so mainly in the provinces. Since their museums were built on the wealth of textile mills and coal mines they tended to be grim and grey buildings, encased in pompous Doric pilasters, decorated in the mock-classicism which Roger Fry used to call pseudo-art. In Victorian museums, most of the ostentation was on the outside. As we all know, Charles Saatchi made his money in advertising. His museum is so discreet it is almost invisible, a giant hiding behind a row of tiny shops in a quiet street in the architectural no-man’s-land between St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage. Even the security cameras are painted grey to blend in with their surroundings. The museum courtyard is the kind of dull tarmac-laid space you find at the back of hotels, where the bins are kept. Saatchi’s money has gone on the inside not the outside of his building, a large proportion of it on white paint.
It takes several minutes for the eyes to grow accustomed to the harsh light inside the gleaming cavern. A specially-designed system bounces light up onto the roof panels and then back into the gallery, in an ambitious attempt to mimic natural lighting conditions. In fact, combined with the relentless white walls, the lighting creates the impression that you are standing in some shimmering Modernist utopia, in which you can’t see properly. Since clarity is a fundamental Modernist quality its absence alerts us. Is this a shrine to Modernism or a dazzling triumph of interior decoration? Are we here to celebrate utopian ideals or white paint? The answer, I’m afraid, is white paint, and above all, white paint’s ability to cover up whatever lies underneath and make it seem clean, new and crisp, like a fresh fall of snow. In this case the white paint effectively covers up the enormous upheaval in art theory and practice which has taken place over the past five years – an upheaval in which Charles Saatchi has played a large part.
Symbolically he represents Commerce, not Goldsmith’s disinterested variety that takes place between equals, but the Monetarist variety which is very interested indeed in what takes place at the top of the tree but has no interest at all in the roots. The return of Commerce to the heart of the contemporary art world, a position it hasn’t occupied for fifty years, a position some of us hoped it had ceded for ever, has occurred swiftly and dramatically. A few young artists, all supported by the determined collecting of Charles Saatchi, have grown incredibly rich, incredibly quickly. They form a new artocracy, living in castles in Germany and loft-complexes in New York, attracting a disproportionate amount of financial support from a new breed of keen young collectors, with Charles Saatchi at the helm. These favoured artists are the so-called masters of Post-Modernism.
If anyone tells you that there is no such thing as Post-Modernism, because there was never any such thing as Modernism, sit them down in an armchair and thrust into their hands a copy of a book on Malevich’s theatre designs for Victory over the Sun, or a glider design by Tatlin, or even a copy of the Chagall catalogue from the Royal Academy exhibition because it tells you how much Chagall left behind in revolutionary Russia, the unrealisable dreams, the utopian ideals, all finding their physical form in a new kind of art.
The mistake which most contemporary art historians make is that they assume Modernism was born in France, in the Cubist ateliers of Braque and Picasso, in the Fauvism of Matisse. This is not so. Braque and Picasso were searching for a new way of painting, not a new way of being. Their experiment in Cubism was little more than the temporary adoption of a fashion, a new style of painting to be tried and dropped as soon as the need for self-expression became too great. And Expressionism, as Donald Judd points out, ‘is not an important idea in the art of this century, since it is the weakest attempt to deal with the disintegration of traditional representation’.
Picasso could change styles at the drop of a hat. He was the perfect 20th-century consumer artist with a new way of painting plopping off his conveyor belt once every ten years, like a new make of car. One minute he is a surrealist. The next he is simplifying Rubens to the basic outlines of his nudes. Then he gives us a weeping girl with an eye where her cheek should be and a mouth instead of a neck. It was called ‘modernism’ only because it looked new and offended the traditionalists. How different this style-conscious moderne-ism was from the true Central European variety born in Russia, but finding its best working example in the Bauhaus. The great difference between the Moderne-ism of Picasso and Co, and the true Modernism of Malevich, Tatlin, Mondrian, is not that one was predominantly figurative with the other predominantly abstract. The fundamental difference is that one was committed to the worship of the human being as an individual, and focused on individual style, hence all those assorted ‘isms’ which came out of Cubism, while the other was committed to society in general. Moderne-ism wanted to emphasise the differences between human beings and Modernism wanted to play them down, to find universality, to suggest that the forces which hold us together as a society are much greater than the details which differentiate us. Moderne-ism encouraged selfishness, exploitation, inequality and pay differentials. Modernism believed that harmony was possible. Modernism was ashamed of the 19th century. It believed that society could be rebuilt on better lines, that wealth could be redistributed, that members could have better housing, better education, greater friendship, and a new art which reflected the new century and the new order. Moderne-ism was cruelly, fundamentally pragmatic. Malevich thought he could engineer a victory over the sun. Picasso wanted to lie in it and improve his tan. Needless to say, there was more money in Moderne-ism, so in the end it won hands down. Charles Saatchi’s dazzling new museum is a monument to that victory.
It is usual to see the art of the Eighties, which Saatchi supports so dramatically as buyer, lender and éminence grise, as a kind of collective turning of the back on the ideals of Modernism, rather than for what it is – the final triumph of dilettantism. It is said that Modernism was born carrying the seeds of its own destruction. When Malevich painted his white square on a white background in 1919 there was already nowhere else to go, except back to Expressionism, that ‘unimportant idea in the art of this century’. But this is seeing things the wrong way round. Malevich’s white square was never intended as the start of some new mode of painting. It was the proclamation of a revolutionary victory. Indeed he wanted his art to hang in the corner of the room in the place traditionally reserved for Russian ikons. He was competing with materialism, not with the future.
If you walk into one of the side-rooms of the Saatchi museum you see art using the language of religion for much more destructive ends. Andy Warhol’s Chairman Mao is a 20-foot-tall painting which hangs alone, at the end of the room, in deliberate imitation of an altarpiece. What are we to assume from this? That Charles Saatchi and Andy Warhol have seen the error of their capitalist ways? On the contrary, we can safely assume that they haven’t, and that the only reason Warhol painted it and Saatchi bought it is that they found the idea of millions of slant-eyed little men in boiler-suits being subjected to giant images of Chairman Mao worthy of mockery on a heroic scale. Warhol’s art occupies the most prominent positions in the museum and it offers us the most telling indictment of our own miserable, mercantile times. Warhol takes our disillusionment, our spiritual bankruptcy, our capacity for exploitation, our rapacity, our mindless hunger for entertainment, our cynicism, and he makes expensive art out of it. A hundred faces of Marilyn stare down at you from a far wall, each bearing an identical painted smile, every mass-produced adman’s smile encouraging a million more exploitable dreams. Warhol’s studio is not called the Factory for nothing. The man is so dangerously pragmatic he even accepts atom bombs. In Warhol’s Disaster series a whole block of mushroom clouds is repeated over and over again like a postage stamp. This is pragmatism on an unbelievable scale. Take away a human being’s urge for self-improvement and you have Andy Warhol.
The crucial feature of Charles Saatchi’s museum – and by extension his entire collection, and by further extension the whole of art today – is that an arch-pragmatist like Warhol can hang in the same gallery as a sometime arch-Modernist like Donald Judd, and that neither of them looks even slightly out of place. Judd used to be a believer. Bemoaning the demise of organised religion, he recently wrote: ‘For a century there has been no counterforce to power and commerce, nothing to say that the existence of the individual and of the world, their relationships, that between individuals, and activities that signify these, such as art, are not a matter of business and are not to be bought and sold.’ So what massive force has brought Judd, the believer, and Warhol, the devil, together? Commerce. What else? They are two of Charles Saatchi’s favourite artists. Warhol’s super-pragmatism and Judd’s lapsed Modernism are just two more styles available at the hypermarket at which the modern collector shops. When you buy Judd you buy all the gleaming furnishings of Utopia without having to go near the place. Although Judd’s sculptures are calm, clean, minimal, he sometimes writes about them with the élan of a second-hand car dealer.
At best there’s nothing wrong with commerce. And it’s hard to overrate the importance of economics. Business is often straightforward, and as a source of income for artists, if matter-of-fact, it’s best. Demand is a reality. Business is much preferable to patronage by the central government bureaucrats or by the appalling nouveaux riches and their kids, rotten before they are ripe, as Diderot said of the Russians improved by Peter. Buying and selling and even raising or making essentials is just that. It’s a necessary basis for civilisation, even a part, but it’s not civilisation itself. There’s no real way to glorify business just as it’s hard to glorify eating and sleeping. Business doesn’t deserve the power and prestige surrounding it. Business is only business.
When I read opinions such as these from a man whose work would have you believe that it deals with something higher in human experience – what we might call the supra-business level – I know for sure that Modernism is dead. Warhol and Judd’s morality comes out of the same empty barrel, which is why they sit so comfortably in the same collection. (By ‘appalling nouveaux riches’ I presume Judd means the collectors to whom, I notice, he is not averse to selling.) Modernism came into being precisely because it was unwilling to accept that business is business. During the Second World War, when a flock of European artists fleeing from Hitler took Modernism to America in their baggage, it was swiftly press-ganged into the Cold War, supposedly on the side of liberty, but in reality on the side of commerce.
Is business really so preferable to patronage by central government bureaucrats? There’s certainly more money in it for the few successful ones at the top of the tree, like Judd. But without some kind of state patronage the Parthenon would not have been built, there would be no Sistine ceiling, Titian would not have been employed by the Venetian state, Henry Moore’s war shelter drawings would not have been made. What we have witnessed in Britain over the past five years – and it really has been that sudden – is not the rise of Post-Modernism but the demise of state patronage. Art has been thrust into the hands of business, and has changed accordingly.
In Britain we have seen the Arts Council’s transformation from a reasonably independent supporter of the arts into a government poodle worthy of Sir Edwin Landseer. We have seen the introduction of corporate sponsorship into our galleries. Private companies have been invited to set up advertising stalls in highly attractive shop-windows paid for out of public money – our museums. The most disgraceful union of art and commerce took place last summer at the Tate Gallery when the United Technologies Corporation, which builds Sikorsky helicopter gunships and helped develop the cruise missile, sponsored the George Stubbs exhibition. It was like hitching a tank to a dappled grey. What kind of moral breakdown has opened the doors of our museums to arms manufacturers? The answer is, I suppose: a complete one.
A giant wave of business has broken over art. Pragmatism, often taking the form of plagiarism, has replaced utopian Modernism as the prevailing artistic theory. The aesthetic consequences are that art has given up the job of enlightenment and gone into the titbit business, providing consumers with tasty morsels of spirituality, a rare and expensive commodity in a materialistic world, as recent art prices show.
New Expressionism is the prevailing style, the spirit in turmoil the prevailing subject. The new style takes the human figure, strips it, then whips it. The Bible, believe it or not, has become a popular source book again, as if all you had to do to find spirituality is look it up in the index. Christ on the Cross has become the most popular subject among younger artists. Not only is Christ flayed but so is the canvas, with long raking brushstrokes and lurid slashes of colour. Experience must be raw. It is no accident that the rise of the new Expressionism has gone hand in hand with the rise of the sushi-bar. The madly flaying young artists are trying to tell us that there isn’t enough spirituality in our materialistic world. Their dealers, seeing the gap in the market, are supplying it, to those that can afford it. With the decline of state support, dealers call the shots.