The Tastemakers, by Rosie Millard

In bed with the prima donnas
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The Independent Culture

When Rosie met Nicholas, there was clearly a frisson. It was not the sort of overt emotion that might be sloganised on a Tracey Emin quilt, nor yet an opaque symbol of admiration that Damien Hirst might express as a stuffed sea creature. No, when the author lunched with Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, she was disconcerted by the charms of the tastemaker in chief.

"It's always exciting meeting Sir Nicholas," she writes. "Perhaps it is because he always looks flawless... Perhaps the allure lies in his wire-rimmed, slightly menacing glasses." This man should be entered for the Turner prize immediately. Rosie Millard even confesses that the first time she met him she was so flustered, she managed to throw a glass of water over his plate. There's not much on the Turner shortlist that can disturb to such effect.

As it happens, the BBC arts correspondent is correct – if not necessarily for the right reasons – to be more affected by Serota than any artist she interviews in her informative book. It is, after all, called The Tastemakers. For all the headline-grabbing exhibitions, fashion shoots, advertising link-ups and publicised parties, few of today's artists have become tastemakers, much less household names, with the exceptions of Hirst, Emin and possibly Gary Hume. The best, if unintentional, laugh in the book comes from Gavin Turk, who breathtakingly muses on whether he should change his name – so worried is he by his perceived fame.

It is not the artists, as Millard astutely recognises, who are the real arbiters of taste. It is the likes of Serota, Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy and, enjoying infinitely greater riches in the private sector, the art dealer Jay Jopling, of White Cube, and the collector and star-maker Charles Saatchi. This band of chums, with a coterie of London-based satellite dealers and collectors, has for better or worse dominated artistic taste for the past 10 years. For better if your passions are installation and video art; for worse if you feel painting should be held in equally high esteem.

Serota has led an extraordinarily successful campaign to raise the profile of contemporary art (Millard discovers that he changed the Turner prize rules so that there was a competitive shortlist. The lack of a fight had resulted in too little publicity). But has the high profile justified the cultural dominance of conceptual art?

This is not a debate that Millard wants to have. Serota, for example, is a "marketing, fund-raising and curating genius". His achievements are indeed manifold. But even a cursory glance at the London Evening Standard's weekly page of art criticism would suggest that praise is not quite universal.

It doesn't greatly matter. Millard is visibly enthused by her subjects; but the book does not aim to be a work of art criticism or a spiky investigation of how a very small group has imposed its taste. Rather, it is a series of interviews, a piece of extended journalism in which Millard assiduously visits every mover and shaker she can find. It's not always a long journey in terms of miles (only the contemporary art world could congratulate itself on discovering new continents when it had merely opened a handful of venues in the East End). But she ploughs through curators, architects, digital designers, advertising executives, party-throwers, club-owners and the rest of the cross-fertilising network that has made a particularly literate generation, even if it is not one in any hurry to prioritise its tastes.

The Tastemakers chronicles initiatives that, taken together, do show the way art can move out of the galleries and street life can come into them. As Philip Dodd, the incisive and under-praised head of the ICA, explains, one of the most far-reaching changes in the art world has been the breaking-down of barriers between forms. No one was coming to see the ICA's weekly roster of art films, so now they are shown in a club context: you sit on the floor, you drink, smoke, then have a disco. "The landscape where art was one place and rock and roll was another place, and film was something else, has collapsed."

Not all of Millard's interviewees are as incisive. Many are self-regarding, having studiedly made a few minor shock waves. They will soon be forgotten. No problem: that, too, captures the zeitgeist.