June 27, 2017

Arbiter Of Taste

The Enlightenment (Room 1) British Museum
The Enlightenment (Room 1) British Museum
The Enlightenment (Room 1) British Museum
The Enlightenment (Room 1) British Museum

 

 

Charles Saatchi’s recent deluded rant about the “vulgar and vile” art world was misguided because all he seemed to do is bemoan his standing in the upper echelons of uber rich art collectors. I think this is distasteful in the current social climate where artists and art institutions are struggling to survive. He is a key ‘arbiter of taste’. He basically funded the YBA’S (Young British Artists) and arguably saved the British art scene during 80’s / 90’s, but his dominating motivations and previous affiliation with the Thatcher government are morally questionable –  should one man have all that power? Charles Saatchi has shown how artists can become commodities in someone else’s game by sponsoring and funding the highly controversial YBA’s. Saatchi’s collection dictates who will be successful and who will not as the power resides with the dealers, curators or collectors while the artist as celebrity is the end product.  His intent and belief that “anything that helped broaden interest in current art was to be welcomed” is insincere. Anyone who creates a museum brandishing their name so boldly, devising categorically definitive exhibitions with an attempt to rewrite the canon of art history or spawn a gladiatorial television show for artists to fight each other and quack critics, can’t be purely interested in the exposure of art. Art has been used as a tool to recreate his own image and sense of grandeur, as he says he is a; “self-serving narcissistic showoff”.
Saatchi does though draw attention to the obvious fact that we have the type of society where the few rich are getting richer and more powerful and the poor are growing and becoming more marginalised. Culture is controlled and dictated by the powerful few; Simon Cowell, Charles Saatchi, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch etc. He reminds us that art is and has been for a long time a play thing for the wealthy that decide taste and set trends. *”The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” But if culture is dictated by the tastes of a powerful few then how can it serve and benefit society at large? Often the tastes of the upper classes are out of sync with the rest of society. They can be concerned with flamboyant displays of wealth or art meant to act as a price tag or label rather than have any redeeming artistic qualities itself. In the Enlightenment rooms at the British Museum you can see how wealthy 18th century collectors have amassed (and looted in other areas of the museum) an array of items from antiquity and across the world based on their idea of taste. They have not only constructed their collections but presented a constructed notion of value with the display. The notion is that this collection represents and defines Enlightenment logic and reason. Starting as curiosity cabinets or basically items purchased by whim, collections became categorized and catalogued as meaning was assigned to them. But the meaning is only a constructed notion created to ingratiate the narcissistic collector as much as the original collecting was intended to do. Similarly the Wallace collection and John Soane’s museum in London display the collections of wealthy individuals. I think it is disingenuous in someway for these collections to be presented to the public after they had only been accessible privately to impress, and ingratiate the collector to wealthy guests. The premise of a museum collection to educate is corrupted by the taste of the collector whose perception in art and its purpose is exposed through subjective selection.
The Enlightenment (Room 1) British Museum
The Enlightenment (Room 1) British Museum

 

Art critics are in an important position to educate and expose art to the public and they have a great responsibility to make judgements which can shape the perception of art. But art critics are also ‘arbiters of taste’ as they can publish definitive and sensationalist opinions and reinforce the taste of the powerful few to the masses. As with the art collector the critic presents his judgements as a definitive and infallible truth when they are actually subjective. They create the language of art, coin the names of groups and art movements and make or break careers. Yet they can get to the point where they find their own opinions so important that it takes hegemony over anyone else; it’s an issue of bad versus good. Good doesn’t compete with bad.” As Matthew Collings shows us, art critics are desperate to be perceived as the holders of truth. Even though the role of the art critic has been questioned and undermined over time, if a critic exclaims that an artist should be shot without any theoretical grounding then they are still bound to get some support because of the assumed social role of the art critic. It seems strange that art critics still carry the status of somekind of shaman or prophet when other cultural commentators have been derided for similar comments; Jeremy Clarkson; “I’d have them all shot”. In this case Matthew Collings is an employee of Charles Saatchi and has more political motivation to discredit art world competitors than I do. Hausmann has satirically depicted the sightless, mentally fragmented, self-important figure of the art critic. With a bank note behind the neck he suggests the critics motives are based only on money much like the political interests of Collings.

Raoul Hausmann The Art Critic 1912-1920 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
Raoul Hausmann The Art Critic 1912-1920 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

 

 

We follow this cultural trend filtered down from the aristocracy because it has been advertised as something everyone should aspire to. It perpetuates and empowers a wealthy collector like Saatchi and as a result art itself becomes narcissistic and shallow as it is created in its own appearance. The artist Grayson Perry recently criticised this elitist control of culture by citing the lack of work by populist artists on display in national art museums. I think there should be room for all art that reflects the concerns of society equally but I am as wary of populist culture as I am of ‘high culture’ because of how easy it is for someone to manipulate and profiteer from it, how it excludes some groups and ultimately of our own preoccupation to mindlessly follow each other.

Today celebrities are sometimes famous only for being famous in the first place, in a society drawing closer to Warhol’s prediction that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. As opposed to Perry’s ideal activity of; “sitting in front of the telly with a beer, watching X Factor” I feel like the predominant cultural content of over subscribed talent contest format’s mixed with celebrity status of controlling wealthy individuals may at the very worst lead to a Running Man scenario where the public’s taste and moral fibre has been eroded by the ‘arbiter of taste’. Or at its peak leave our societies cultural contribution with a dancing dog!

 

 

 

* John Berger Ways of Seeing 1972

 

 

 

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