Ars Gratia Artis
An excellent BBC4 programme last night, ‘The Banker’s Guide To Art’, about the rules that govern the buying and selling of modern art, proved essential viewing for anyone researching a crime novel. Here is the one multi-billion-pound industry that is not governed by financial rules.
It owes this unique place to history, when the titled families first began selling off their art anonymously, and has become enshrined with the ethic of secrecy at its heart. Art has invisible owners, cartels that force up prices, tax avoidance managers and hiding places – the freeports. These are essentially storage facilities defined by a bit of semantic hair-splitting. They technically count as offshore, so you get security and privacy without scrutiny. The owners hide behind nominees and get tax advantages.
This is because the stuff in freeports is technically in transit. The value of goods stashed there thought to be in the hundreds of billions, and rising, and the protection offered from prying eyes ensures that they appeal to kleptocrats and tax-dodgers as well as plutocrats. Although the concept is ancient, the world’s rich are increasingly investing in expensive stuff, and freeports such the ones in Singapore, Luxembourg and dodgy old Switzerland make perfect hiding places. They’re huge beneficiaries as undeclared money flees offshore bank accounts as a result of tax-evasion crackdowns.
So collecting modern art is about gambling and making money – no surprise there. The programme had some terrifically revealing interviews with art collectors. One couple had made their money in waste management and were appropriately like the nouveau riche characters in Dickens’ ‘Our Mutual Friend’.
My problem extends to understanding conceptual art, and the link between the art and comprehension.
I thought the Saatchi ‘Sensation’ exhibition showcasing YBAs was one of the most exciting things I’d ever seen – and it was primarily conceptual in form. If you look at Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra’, you see a roughly painted face. If you know that Myra Hindley was a notorious killer who took the lives of children with her lover Ian Brady, and that the painting is made up of children’s hand marks, it suddenly becomes a very powerful and moving act of reclamation.
Not all conceptual artworks render up their meanings so easily. Most of the pieces in the Tate extension are incomprehensible without reams of explanation, and ugly. Some ducting, a few rusty nails, a spill of black oil.
When I was young I sat in front of modern paintings for hours. Now, jaded, I barely gave anything a passing glance. What changed? The greed and cynicism of Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin stopped me from caring whether a pile of bricks meant something more, especially when Hirst ‘did a Ratner’, publicly ridiculing his own buyers.
The last thing you want to think when looking at a piece of art is ‘Is this a con?’ Admittedly religious paintings from the 16th century fail to provide clues to their intentions on first glance, but much modern art – such as a neon sign reading ‘Happiness is expensive’ seem facile and trite.
In the programme an art dealer was showing us the art on his wall at home and all I could think was, ‘He can’t even choose nice curtains, what hope is there for his art?’ Of course he wasn’t seeing art at all, but cheques.