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John Michell on the Saatchi Brothers - An Unorthodox Voice

Blog | By John Michell | Jul 24, 2021

John Michell laments the Saatchi Gallery's displays

Sometimes of a Saturday afternoon I enjoy a visit to the spacious halls of the Saatchi Gallery, hidden away off a side-street in London NW. It belongs to two brothers who are said to have made their fortunes in advertising. Unkind critics have sneered at the poor Saatchis, calling their modern art collection ‘a load of worthless junk dumped upon them by New York art con-men’. It is easy sport for such people to mock the tastes of the newly rich. The reason I go to the gallery is not to laugh but to contemplate, in a spirit of philosophic melancholy, the rare examples of human folly and credulity which the Saatchis so piteously provide.

One wonders why they do it and who or what has persuaded them to part with hard-earned money for this rubbish. Some belief must have motivated their monstrous assemblage. It can hardly be mere greed, for there is nothing greedy in accumulating stuff which can never be resold for anything like the price given for it. It must have been some powerful faith or myth that caused the Saatchis to lose their business sense and dispose of their capital in this whimsical manner.

Yes indeed, it was a myth. The secret was revealed the other day by Jenny Blyth, Curator of the Saatchi Collection. In the Evening Standard she stated as follows: ‘Throughout history great works of art have often been derided when first created, only to be hailed as masterpieces many years later when they become our cultural icons.’

We have all heard that one before. It is called the Bohemian Myth. Invented last century in Paris, during the free-spirited era of la vie bohème, it proclaimed that any true artist was bound to suffer neglect or persecution by the coarse, unfeeling bourgeoisie. The mark of the artist was his ability to shock and scandalise these dull people. This had been the case throughout history.

The Saatchis have probably read about the Bohemian Myth in art books and romantic novels, but perhaps they have never been told that it was just a literary fancy, degenerating into an excuse for self-pity, and that no serious artist has ever paid attention to it. Jenny Blyth should know that, and she would be giving better service to her employers if she quietly explained to them about the Myth rather than used it to defend their lamentable collection.

She really should tell them the truth: that every artist, from antiquity up to recent times, has worked within the traditions of his society and has been valued according to his attainments. In the studio of his master the young painter learnt far more than the specialised techniques of his craft, and only when he had been led beyond pride in his own cleverness to acknowledge the divine source of his genius was he allowed to influence the public by exhibiting his own work.

There was no reason in the past for an artist to be rejected by his society, nor did he need to caper like a madman to attract attention. Nor are there ancient examples of great works of art which were ‘derided when first created, only to be hailed as masterpieces many years later’ — except perhaps the Tower of Babel. Even in modern times, the majority of acclaimed artists (yes, I know about Van Gogh and poor little Chatterton) have been appreciated during their working lives. All too many of them now receive instant status as ‘cultural icons’.

If I were the Saatchi Brothers I would be inclined to instruct Jenny Blyth to sell the lot for whatever it would fetch and buy us a few decent pictures to take home.