Wednesday, 9 December 2009

School of Saatchi

The BBC have been running a kind of X Factor for artists. The programme opened three weeks ago with over 1,000 artists competing for the hallowed prize of a free studio for three years and the possibility of showing art in the much revered Hermitage gallery in St Petersburg. Six artists have now been shortlisted by a panel of art notorieties including artist Tracey Emin, critic Matthew Collins and head of art at the Barbican, Kate Bush.

I must admit I was deeply suspicious of this programme at first. There's something quite hidious about the whole thing and it sounded like the worst kind of clash between reality TV and a contemporary art scene that already struggles for credibility from a cynical public. The trouble is, like some kind of guilty pleasure, I'm actually starting to like The School of Saatchi.

Each week the artists are given tasks to complete but they’re not the kind of humiliating scoffing of jungle beetles or putting ants down your pants you might expect from this kind of formula show. The artists are actually asked to make art and interesting projects at that. Last week they were asked to make public art for Hastings. This week saw our intrepid six installing art at Sudeley Castle, home of the Dent-Brocklehursts and Lord & Lady Ashcombe. These are the kind of art commissions many young contemporary artists (like me) would love to have a shot at.

OK OK so there’s an element of the ridiculous to keep the ratings up (Saad – 23 year old art student. Makes work about himself. Looks freakishly like a mate of mine at work - sends a japati through the post to Lady Ashcombe which arrives late and mouldy. Nineteen year old art student Eugenie is portrayed as a slightly pretentious and “quirky” girl but it doesn’t help her case when she comes out with statements like, “The reason I make art is to make people think about… erm… things.”) but this aside the artists come across as sincere and committed, each grappling with how to make art at a young age and at a time when traditional notions of skill, craft and historical awareness aren’t necessarily taught at art college. In fact, this seems to be what the show is really about. “It’s all in the effort of working out what is Modern art?”, Matthew Collins declares. This is an ambitious project. To me the project seems more about one particular faction of Modern art: this programme about Charles Saatchi, what he wants, what he likes and how to please him. It is Saatchi who has the final say on the winner and it’s his personal tastes that are the suggested guide for the students critical practice.

Saatchi is an Ad man. The “king maker of artists” as Collins puts it. This is the man who established the careers of artists like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Jenny Saville. He’s into big bold statements. Today, I see graduates from the London colleges working with more subtle philosophies for art, we seem to have moved beyond the brash ideologies of the late 80s and early 90s. Bigger is not always better. Tact and understatement are favoured over shock and initial impact. Take this year’s Turner prize for example with refreshingly understated work by Luci Skaer, Richard Wright and Roger Hjorn (some might say too understated). On the programme, Suki makes quiet video installations. Her work is calm, thoughtful and sensitive to it’s subject matter but her work, so far at least, appears to be virtually ignored by the art tycoon.

For me, the most intriguing element of the programme is the rather conspicuous absence of Saatchi himself. For a programme that is all about the king-maker of contemporary art, Saatchi is rather disappointingly… well… not there. Notoriously camera-shy, Saatchi arrives in a helicopter at the end of the show in a flurry of glamour but chooses to view the work in private, relaying his preferences through an assistant (Rebecca Wilson) rather than meeting the students face to face. It is this sense of aloofness that, I feel, best encapsulates the zeitgeist of Saatchi’s world and the cult-like status he has reached. I can’t help but feel that the students would be better off rebelling against the programme, sticking a finger up to Saatchi and making their own art for the cameras. That might do more for their careers, more to answer the question, “what is Modern art?” and more for the TV ratings. Not all art collectors think like Saatchi and there is, I feel, more to Modern art than what we see here.

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