Sensational, but no cause for despair

Losing this art will be like losing close relatives - but then, many of us are quite happy to shed husbands and move on

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Woke up yesterday morning to find a 2am text message from Tracey Emin on my mobile - "I was OK now Im HURT TKE BUT NO ONE DIED and IDEAS CONTINUE. The WAR in ARAQ (
sic) is WRONG x".

Woke up yesterday morning to find a 2am text message from Tracey Emin on my mobile - "I was OK now Im HURT TKE BUT NO ONE DIED and IDEAS CONTINUE. The WAR in ARAQ ( sic) is WRONG x".

For Tracey, everything that happens in her life, from Docket the cat going missing to her trip to Memphis in Egypt, ends up in her work, and the text messages are running news bulletins from Traceyworld. One day someone will print them all out and sell them, no doubt.

Dinos Chapman, when told that the tent Tracey had made embroidered with all the names of her lovers was destroyed, is reported to have said: "That would be nice." No love lost there, then. British artists, always lumped together in a homogenous group by many in the media, are as lively and competitive a group of people as you ever could meet.

Next to my bed in London hangs the Chapman brothers' astonishing set of engravings based on Goya's Disasters of War, and I always feel they start my day on exactly the right footing. At its best, their work is exhilarating, confrontational, uplifting. Now, their most accomplished piece, Hell, a giant tableau constructed using thousands of toy soldiers, has been destroyed along with Tracey's tent in the dreadful fire that swept through a warehouse in east London on Monday morning.

The blaze has wiped out millions of pounds worth of art by people who have become household names; Tracey, Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Sarah Lucas. Not only artists were the losers - Shirley Conran has said goodbye to her collection of paintings by Gillian Ayres, and Charles Saatchi has lost a big chunk of the Brit Art he has so painstakingly built up over the past decade.

For all the ironic wit the Chapmans are famous for - to the extent of saying they can make their piece again (highly unlikely as it took over a year in the first place) - this fire is both good and bad news for British art.

It's bad news for collectors - although people like Charles Saatchi are demonised by critics, artists and a lot of the media, there is no doubting his passion and total commitment to what he buys. For Charles, his art is like his family - he places it around his house, he delights in your reaction to it, he adores showing and sharing it.

I laughed over the stories about Marc Quinn's Bloodhead melting in the freezer in Mr Saatchi's kitchen - a patently untrue fantasy from the start. In his guest loo, you are confronted with a Quinn, and there's a Chapman family of little girls with willies on their foreheads staring out from his Eaton Square drawing room window. There's Paula Rego in the hall and Dwayne Hanson on the landing. Charles is a robust enough personality to bring his art right into the middle of his everyday life. He gets a charge from it, just as all collectors do, and just as I do in my small way with that first look at a Chapman in the morning.

So losing this art will be like losing close relatives - but then, many of us are quite happy to shed husbands and wives and move on seamlessly to the next. So I will not be surprised to discover that next week Mr Saatchi will be back to his daily routine, scouring small galleries and college diploma shows here and in New York, and buying whatever takes his fancy. He'll feel a sense of loss, but there's always the next great acquisition.

And for the artists too, this is a win-win situation. Sure, they've lost something unique and special from their past; but once your work has been bought by a collector it passes from your hands into their private world, only rarely being placed on public display. From the moment you sign up with a dealer, and sell that first work, you have lost control over the journey your work has embarked on.

And as many of our contemporary artists have become more and more successful, they employ assistants and technicians so that they can keep up with the demand for their work. Damien Hirst has studios in Devon and London, and a small army of dedicated workers who turn his complex ideas into reality. Tracey Emin is conscientious in ensuring that her ideas are often on public display, from working in collaboration with the pupils at a primary school on a charity project, to displaying her latest work in a restaurant (Sketch) where you or I could enjoy it over a cup of tea and a pastry.

The best of all these artists, like Marc Quinn and Gary Hume, work in a whole range of mediums, from painting to photography to sculpture to carpets. They see each new project as a challenge and a way to be invigorated - that's what I find so refreshing, their total disregard for the possibility of failure. Unlike our politicians, our leading contemporary artists constantly take risks, reacting and responding to the world around them.

Since the Sensation exhibition featuring Charles Saatchi's collection was shown in London and then in New York, the international art scene has flocked to London. Last year's Frieze Art fair in Regent's Park (with another planned for this summer) was a stunning success with the public and purchasers from abroad. And the boom in Brit Art hasn't slowed down.

The prices made by British art at auctions in New York last week show that now collectors within the American mainstream are discovering the delights of our top artists. A 1992 piece by Damien Hirst fetched a cool million dollars, while a flashing neon sign by Tim Noble and Sue Webster made $231,000; works by Mona Hatoum and Gary Hume fetched over $100,000 dollars each.

Tracey's message was right: in spite of the fire, ideas go on. But the losers in all of this are you, the public. The Tate Modern, under Nick Serota's stewardship, has been strangely cautious when it comes to investing in home-grown new art. They might host the Turner prize, and work by Sarah Lucas, Damien and Angus Fairhurst, but how much do they own?

If you and I want to see the best new contemporary art, then we will have to visit private galleries like White Cube, Maureen Paley, Sadie Coles or Mr Saatchi's collection at the old GLC building. There may be temporary exhibitions in public galleries, like the Baltic or Tate Britain, but Mr Serota has been criminally slow to purchase work for his permanent collection by young artists who now are being lauded around the world. And our elected leaders have been slow to invest in it too. What's Ken got outside his offices?

Where I live in Clerkenwell, the council has allowed large-scale developement and demolition by canny developers, without ever forcing them to put anything back for the public to enjoy. St John Street once had a boarded up public toilet, now demolished. In its place stands a single lonely sapling, surrounded by motorbikes.

Tessa Jowell needs to force local and regional councils to place art in public places, funded by developers to add to the character of neighbourhoods. Otherwise our best new art, like much that has been destroyed in this fire, will end up abroad, or hanging in a private home.

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