Is Charles Saatchi, at 70, the hero of contemporary art?

As the YBAs' champion notches up another decade, we asked two leading critics whether he has been good for artists and audiences

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Yes he is...

It has been Charles Saatchi, not Nicholas Serota at the Tate, who has kept us informed of the world's wilder shores of art since 1997, the year of his Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was then that he introduced the now notorious YBAs (Young British Artists) to the wider public of the Mail, the Mirror and The Sun, revealing that shock, horror, nausea, schoolboy smut and sheer technical incompetence had become the common and proper constituents of art. He then sat back and let happen the predictable deluge of abuse.

Bishops questioned the morality of dummies so mutilated that every protrusion and aperture of the human body had been displaced; MPs gasped at the gaping wounds and frozen blood, and deplored the sexualising of the kebab, the fried egg and the bucket; church and state combined to give Saatchi publicity that no advertisement could match. Columnists accused him of being a profiteering dealer; artists damned him for buying and selling their work in bulk, while praying that he would not ignore their exhibitions; the wails of the few contrary art critics proved futile, and the sycophantic many scrambled on to the Saatchi bandwagon; dealers, curators and collectors surrendered to the influential power of his patronage, and followed obediently.

Since Sensation, Saatchi has mounted many other exhibitions, all of which could have borne the title Art Now, for that has always been their subject – Art Now in Germany, Russia, China, America, the Near East and, above all, in Britain – and we have at last begun to realise that if we know anything of immediately contemporary art, now a global phenomenon, it is because he alone has exhibited it. At Tate Modern, Serota has given us retrospectives of major artists well established in the history of art (on Bankside, Gauguin and Matisse are still modern), but has shown us almost nothing of what is happening today.

As one man's choice, Saatchi's shows are random and pragmatic, perhaps even hasty, certainly impulsive, often undisciplined, but their presence enables us to see that even in this age of extreme internationalism in art, there are still significant national distinctions. His minions write the incomprehensible jargon of contemporary art, but that is to make the pseuds feel comfortable – I fancy that Saatchi himself does not believe a word. I fancy, too, that he does not necessarily like the work he shows us, but shows it because it exists, perhaps represents a new trend and should not be ignored. I fancy that he is as sceptical as any sane man and perhaps performing a cunning and subversive service in undermining contemporary art, in constantly reminding us of its tedious futility. Of one thing I am certain – that he has single-handedly taken over from Tate Modern its prime and vital duty to keep us abreast of contemporary art and its extremes. We should value his endeavour, unique in the history of British patronage.

Brian Sewell is art critic of the 'Evening Standard'

No he isn't...

Charles Saatchi is, at heart, an adman. He has an adman's sensibility for the shallow and eye-catching. He realised that, by clever presentation, what is entirely superficial may easily be passed off as profound. The advance publicity for his Sensation exhibition in 1997 was a campaign now doubtless taught in all art colleges: get yourself noticed, cause a stink, the art hardly matters. By blurring the borders between dealing and collecting, he has been a far more absorbing presence than the artists he has promoted. He has inflicted upon us tons of catchpenny trash, and it has been fascinating to watch.

His influence has been malign in many subtle ways. Being able to make or break a career, by both purchases and sales, his Midas touch has encouraged a generation of students to produce the kind of immediate, deliberately offensive work that might catch his eye. He has to accept some responsibility for the fact that art schools are now almost entirely organised to produce so-called "challenging" and "cutting-edge" work to the exclusion of everything else. And, by his marketing methods, he has seduced many credulous students into believing that presentation and media profile are more important in establishing a career than the quality of their work. He is also infamous for having built reputations and cashed in only, subsequently, to drop individuals whose careers have never recovered. Buying work in bulk, exhibiting it, then selling it on for more is good business but a dubious practice.

These methods lead one to question whether he actually likes art, or whether it is merely something he uses for selfish purposes. In his books and interviews, he avoids describing any single work of art that may have moved him. Buying and selling art by the truckload are not the instincts of a collector or art lover, more the marks of a specialist consumer addiction.

Even his alleged generosity is questionable. He has been lauded for giving works from his massive stash to public collections, but these have often been to regional galleries too broke to refuse anything and mainly by minor and unknown artists. Some of the works, it transpired, had failed to sell at auction.

To see his living legacy at work, visit the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which opens this week. You will find works prominently displayed by the Academy's professors of painting and drawing, Gary Hume and Tracey Emin respectively, whose reputations Saatchi created: one can't paint and the other can't draw.

In Saatchi's time, the sale of art has transformed into a sleazy futures market, where work is traded by wretched vulgarians chiefly for investment, profit-taking and personal aggrandisement. He has been the most original figure in British art in the past 30 years. What that says about British art is another matter.

David Lee is editor of 'The Jackdaw'

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