Ars Gratia Artis

The Arts


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.


12 comments on “Ars Gratia Artis”

  1. agatha hamilton says:

    Excellent. And right about the curtains, too.

  2. Steve says:

    I ranted about Luxembourg before on Chris’s blog but I’ll just say again, it’s a giant vampire squid at the heart of europe, whose tentacles are bonded warehouses across Europe. Its existence, and the support thiscity state gets from germany and france, is one of the best arguments for brexit.

  3. Gary Hart says:

    On the subject of Luxembourg. The man who set it up as one big tax dodge appears to be a certain Jean Claude Junkers. Glad to see he didn’t benefit from his giant con.

  4. Julie says:

    Art dealers are even worse in the flesh, I can’t handle that world at all anymore. Well said, I couldn’t watch that programme because art means a lot to me and I hate the con artists who have hijacked it.

  5. J F Norris says:

    I so agree with you about Hirst who is a criminal of the worst sort, IMO. Egotistical ass****, too. But his “clients” are the bigger fools. Who’d actually pay millions of [enter currency] for a dead animal preserved in formaldehyde and think it was art? Unreal. So much of modern art is all about con artists and buyers gullible enough to believe what they are told about the so-called art being important or relevant.

    One of the best books about art criticism and collecting mania is Charles Willeford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy. So convincing is the book that I actually believed that many of the artists in the book were real. I was fooled because he included real artists among the fictional ones and had created detailed mini-bios for the fake ones. I actually tried to find out more about them by Googling. But of course I came up with nothing which had me laughing at myself for being conned by a novelist! Really it’s the portrait of the protagonist –a narcissistic art critic– and his relationship with a reclusive entirely fictional artist (I wasn’t fooled about that part) that makes up the bulk of the book. A fascinating novel. Highly recommended.

  6. Roger says:

    “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.”

    Is a work of art which only “means” anything when it’s explained a work of art in the same way that a painting or a statue is? In fact, do you need the actual work of art at all if the concept is what matters? Would ‘Myra’ lose its artistic value if it turned out the children’s hand-marks aren’t actually real children’s hand-marks?

    I agree about ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’. It explains particular kinds of art or “art” better than some books which set out to explain it.

  7. George Mealor says:

    The con men are always with us. I believe Hans Christian Andersen covered this subject in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, Illinois is the kind of modern art that can make you thoughtful, unlike the piles of trash and random objects that is often pushed at us.

  8. Julie says:

    Just want to point out that conceptual art took place in the 1960’s to mid 1970’s, to an art historian calling yourself one now is as nonsensical as calling yourself a cubist. Anish Kapoor rocks, by the way. Great integrity, and skill.

  9. Julie says:

    The Myra Hindley piece was done at a time when she was coming up for parole, I have always taken it as saying throw away the key! Then again it was probably placed in the exhibition as a publicity stunt by the brothers S.

  10. James W says:

    My favourite piece of Moors Murder art has to be Throbbing Gristle’s “Very Friendly”. Still sounds as great and disturbing today as it did back in 1975.

  11. Anne Fernie says:

    I think the term ‘visual art’ (as opposed to ‘fine’ art) covers all the conceptual, crossover, multi-media based stuff although it is a little opaque. What I dislike about this stuff is that it is basically intended for public display (galleries etc) rather than the private space so a distinct schism appears to have opened up. Also the whole sniggering post-modernist era has left a really tired legacy, hence all these ‘slogan’ type products like ‘happiness is expensive’ mentioned by Chris that Barbara Kruger was doing nearly 40 years ago as cultural critique have all been appropriated and spewed out by the very people she was targeting (retail, advertising etc.) – I guess that in itself is quite post-modern……

  12. glasgow1975 says:

    I remember being so excited about my trip to the Guggenheim Bilbao whilst backpacking around Europe in 2001. I had in fact largely planned my route in order to get there.
    The building! The Puppy! The art? Meh
    I was crushed that this amazing building was full of rubbish. Literally in many cases. Disemboweled tvs, rusting piles of junk, video ‘installations’, yes the ubiquitous neon tubes, and the absolute icing on the cake, Ricky Martin’s leather trousers!

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