Art: The spirit moves them

Absolut Collection The Wardrobe, Leeds
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The Independent Culture
Those of you with an interest in the history of art patronage might like to visit two exhibitions this month: the Royal Academy's van Dyck show, which examines (among other things) the role of Charles I as patron; and an exhibition in Leeds of works commissioned by the Absolut vodka company. A comparison of the pair makes for interesting viewing. One collection bears all the hallmarks of its wilful patron, intent on the creation of an aura of quasi-divine power and with a visible autocratic hold over the artists in its employ. The other was commissioned by the king of England.

What the collections have in common is that the works in them are intended to sell the commodities they portray, respectively the divine right of kings and clear grain spirit. The means are, naturally, rather different. Van Dyck peddles royal authority by depicting Charles and his family as inhabitants of another world, one governed by play-acting and dressed by a theatrical costumier. The Absolut Collection sets about to instil a cosy sense of in-ness in its intended viewers. Roughly, its marketing equation runs like this: you are hip enough to recognise a Warhol (or a Hirst) when you see one; you know that artists are cool people; Absolut has bought pictures by those artists; ergo, you will buy Absolut.

Implicit in the self-image which the Swedish vodka-makers want to convey through their patronage are Bohemian things like free-spiritedness: a happening company commissioning happening painters. Of course, the work in the Absolut Collection has much more to do with prosaic things like pay cheques and contractual obligations. The show's publicity asserts that "instead of just donating money to artists, we help promote talent by bringing it into the international spotlight". Since the first artist commissioned by the company was Andy Warhol - hardly in need of international spotlighting in 1985 and always fond of mere money - this claim seems faintly obscure.

The star of the Leeds show is a new painting by Damien Hirst, also not without fame or funds; others are by Kenny Scharf and Arman, and there are the statutory photographs of boys in underpants by Herb Ritts. The company also stresses that the artists were "given complete creative freedom" as long as the Absolut bottle was visible in the work. One is reminded of Henry Ford's remarks on the choice of colours for the Model T.

It might have been interesting had the artists taken Absolut at its word and used their supposed creative freedom for a spot of artistic subverting. Warhol's painted bottle may, I suppose, be seen as following in his tradition of mocking the commodification of US culture, but irony is otherwise thin on the ground in vodkaland. Scharf's bottle painting has cartoony, Caspar-ish spirits - presumably a visual pun - issuing amiably from the neck of a quart of Absolut, while Holly Johnson's piece of faux-naif duty- free sits on a Caribbean beach next to a smiling white dog, happy black people and a halved pink grapefruit. If these are saying something dark about transnational drinks cartels, it escapes me.

Chris Ofili's 1996 work does put the words "Absolut" and "vodka" on lumps of elephant dung, which, if you subscribe to the Ofili-as-satirist tendency, may be viewed as subversion of a kind. The only work that does have a clearly bolshie feel to it is Richard Clegg's 1994 oil-and-neon work: two Absolut bottles - one being bathed in by a sottish woman, the other in the form of a police- incident chalk line around an apparently dead man - on a fractured canvas. That Absolut allowed this to pass suggests that they mean what they say about creative freedom. It is the artists who seem to have bottled out.

You may recall the advertisement for a rival vodka brand, in which the bottle reveals the truth about things seen through it: tabbies exposed as latent panthers, suave playboys as wolves and so on, in a sort of in vodka veritas. Rather the same thing seems to be going on in the Absolut show. What we see through its bottles is something about the contemporary art market: an erosion of the distinction between art and what Absolut probably calls "lifestyle", an indication of what happens when money (rather than, say, an artistically enlightened Stuart) is king. It is, if you like, the difference between selling spirituality and selling spirits. I know which I prefer.

Absolut Collection: The Wardrobe, Leeds (0113 242 3104) to 20 September