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Issue 47

Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade

How important was Charles Saatchi really?

BY Matthew Slotover in Books , Frieze | 06 JUN 99

Despite the acres of press coverage over the last ten years, many questions about the Saatchi collection remain. Even its name is ambiguous. In the 80s, the ‘Saatchi’ in Saatchi collection either referred to the Saatchi brothers or Charles and his first wife, Doris; now it undoubtedly refers only to Charles. ‘Collection’ is accurate enough, though Saatchi's space in Boundary Road quietly changed its name from ‘Saatchi Collection’ to ‘Saatchi Gallery’ some time in the mid-90s, possibly to ease the introduction of entrance fees. The gallery is still often referred to in the press as the Saatchi Museum, but museums do not deaccession as often as Saatchi; nor are their acquisitions determined solely by the changing taste of an individual.

Such objections may sound like quibbling, but it is on minor confusions like these that the reputation of the collection has been built - and which the publication Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade (1999) does little to clarify. Its subtitle is the most remarkable of these; for the first time, it is openly being suggested that the last ten years of young art production in Britain owes its success to one Charles Saatchi. At the end of the decade, despite the commercial and critical success of ‘Sensation’, this claim is simply untenable. The book makes clear that being in the collection is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a young British artist to gain a reputation. There are many highly respected artists – Peter Doig, Douglas Gordon, Steve McQueen, Steven Pippin, Jane and Louise Wilson, to name just six – who do not feature in the collection; likewise, a large proportion - probably the majority – of the artists in the book have, so far, attracted little interest from anyone but Saatchi. Only two artists who have subsequently seen some success can Saatchi accurately claim to have discovered – Jenny Saville and Ron Mueck, both super-figurative, un-sensational artists.

The colophon reveals that some of the work in the book is no longer in the collection, but has been sold or given away in the much-publicised auction and donation to the Arts Council collection. There is other work in the collection that has not, for one reason or another, been included in the book. So as a definitive document, even of Saatchi's young British art, the volume is incomplete. This is a problem, because the main art historical benefit of building a collection is to elaborate the meaning of artworks through their association with others. Saatchi has said he wants to create a 'living collection', but the arbitrary method with which he buys and sells does few favours for the collection as a whole.

The book presents its content with an air of objectivity. It contains dozens of press clippings from the past decade, many of which are hostile; Richard Cork's essay is subtitled 'Myth and Reality in the YBA/Saatchi Decade'; and the text by Dick Price (alias Dexter Dalwood, an artist whose work has been bought by Saatchi) begins by stating that 'there is a story to be told and a mythology to debunk'. Quite, but it does not happen here; the essays, for the most part, tell the same old Freeze-Modern Medicine-Sensation story. The cuttings make up some of the most entertaining pages in the book, revealing much about the British press of the 90s; but as most of them veer from embarrassingly uncritical gushing to a more predictable, but equally depressing, blanket outrage at all contemporary art, they end up painting a picture of 'controversy', a reaction that clearly delights Saatchi. The clippings are reproduced reversed out of cyan or magenta, which enhances this impression, decontextualising each article even further.

Saatchi is consistently criticised on several fronts, but few arguments stand up to serious inquiry. His background as Thatcher's ad man is a problem for many, and has been used to slur the political reputation of the artists in the collection. In the book, Thatcher's face is reproduced on the page following Marcus Harvey's Myra (1995), and in one of two interviews, Saatchi says that the initiative shown in artist-run spaces was 'part of a Thatcherist legacy'. But for young artists, the possibility of exhibiting in commercial galleries in the late 80s/early 90s was scarce; in any case, these initiatives could just as easily be seen as a legacy of the do-it -yourself aesthetic of Punk.

The other main allegation aimed at Saatchi is that his ultimate motive, is one of financial gain. This is unlikely. Certainly, the sale at auction last year of 130 works seemed rather heartless, but it's not as if he hadn't done it before. If artists sell their work to him, they should know this is a possibility. Saatchi's reply to the profit question is that '90% of the work I buy could be worthless in ten years time to anyone but me', which may well be true; this year's Sunday Times 'Rich List' halved their estimate of his worth, not because of any lack of confidence in his new agency, M&C Saatchi, but because the results of last year's auction did not live up to their expectations. Typically, the news will please Saatchi - rumour has it that the aim of the sale was to reduce his tax bill.

Collectors choose contemporary art for many reasons that do not involve making money. Prestige comes with patronage of youth and creativity; even more so if the collector is seen to have created an entire art scene. Contemporary art in Britain has been aided by Saatchi's ravenous patronage, but it is clear now that the enormous art boom of the 90s would have happened without him. If the Tate, Hayward, Whitechapel or Arts Council had attempted a definitive exhibition or publication of British art of the 90s, perhaps the importance of the Saatchi collection would not now be so overrated. It is only because of the lack of competition and the hype - exemplified by this book - that Saatchi's name has, in some minds, become, in Dick Price's words, 'synonymous with the term "young British artist"'.

Main image: Charles Saatchi. Courtesy: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Matthew Slotover is co-founder of Frieze