Christina Patterson: Art for art's sake (when the bubble bursts)

Our mad market-led art culture has distorted judgements of what is good, or beautiful
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The Independent Online

In the week that the global economy collapsed, I had a lovely time looking at art. On Wednesday night, it was art from China. On Thursday night, it was art from Iran. Revolutions come and go. Regimes change. Dictators are installed. But the human impulse to create beauty out of ugliness continues. "When you have two pennies left in the world," as one of the more comprehensible Chinese proverbs tells us, "buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other." Bread to live and the lily to have a reason to live.

The Chinese art on Wednesday was not the Saatchi spectacular unleashed at his new gallery in Chelsea. This was, apparently, like rush-hour in Beijing, as champagne-sipping glitterati strained to catch a glimpse of – well, not the art, obviously, but the man himself, the maestro, the maverick, contemporary art's Mao. This, after all, was the man who led art on the Long March from poverty to global superpower, the man who created elites on a whim. But Mr Saatchi, like Godot, wasn't there. He, according to his global superbrand wife, was "watching television".

No, the Chinese art I saw on Wednesday was in a small gallery in Savile Row. The last time I saw it, and the artist, was in a tiny studio just off the People's Square in Shanghai. The studio was in an old courtyard house occupied by 17 families. There was no light in the hall. Over tiny cups of tea, brewed on a camping gas stove, Sun Liang told me, through an interpreter, about his life. He told me about the dead people he saw on the street during the Cultural Revolution, about his years carving jade in an arts and craft factory and about his early forays into painting. He told me about the flash of enlightenment in the 1980s when he was free to learn about Western art and literature, and the dark years that followed Tiananmen Square. Since then, he has taken part in the Venice Biennale, and exhibited all over the world, but he has always been reluctant to show work from those years. Reluctant, that is, until now.

Here, in this smart gallery, among mini-Meccas to designer handbags and shoes, was his anguish writ large: a giant skeleton of an Icarus flying too close to a cluster of grinning-skull suns, a black skeleton with limbs flailing in the shape of a swastika, a centipede surrounded by grinning gargoyle heads, and yet another skeleton prostrate under a shower of blood. "During that period of time," Sun Liang explains in the catalogue to the exhibition at the James Hyman gallery, "the extreme description of death would bring a pleasurable sensation. I was unable to face the social circumstances."

The following evening, in a gallery down the road, I met another artist whose "social circumstances" present something of a challenge. As a woman in Iran, Golnaz Fathi is not allowed to leave the house unless she covers everything except her face and her hands. If she disobeys, she risks a year in prison – or, if she's lucky, 74 lashes. If she "misbehaves" sexually, she could be stoned to death. This radiantly beautiful 36-year-old artist doesn't mention any of this. Perhaps more importantly, nor does her art. "It isn't political in any way at all," she told me.

Well, perhaps not. Certainly, gazing at these mesmerising melanges of calligraphic swirls punctuated by splashes of colour, it's hard to see a clear political message. But when Fathi – one of Iran's leading artists, whose work is now part of the permanent collection at the British Museum – talks about escaping from the discipline of the calligraphy she learnt, painstakingly, for seven hours a day for seven years, and allowing the brush to dance on the canvas, when she herself can't, it's hard not to see metaphors everywhere. The show (at Xerxes Fine Art) is, after all, called "My Freedom".

When the annual Frieze art fair opens next week, London will, once again, be awash with the superficial solipsistic vomitings of artists desperate to get rich quick. Our mad, market-led art culture – of which Saatchi has been the presiding Svengali – has already made many rich out of all proportion to their talent. It has distorted judgements of what is good, or beautiful, or true. Visual art, like all art, should be about craft, technique, ideas and passion. Sensation is fine, for a micro-moment, but sensation is only sensation.

If our art bubble, like our banking bubble, gives way to something else, then I hope it's to this: to artists who have the humility to acknowledge that they're working in a tradition in which everything has been said before, and probably better, but that it's always worth trying because you are a particular person in a particular culture at a particular point in history. I hope, in other words, that our artists will have something to say and the talent to say it.