Christina Patterson: Art, money and a marriage made in hell

The market has survived. The Kapoors and the Quinns are flying out the door
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The Independent Online

So it's business as usual. In the City, the champagne is flowing, and the foie gras is flying off the plates, and the lap dancers are sticking thick wads of notes into their bras (do they wear bras?) or G-strings. It's BAB, babe. Bonuses Are Back. Staff at Goldman Sachs might just as well be paid in sacks of gold, as the company, bailed out by the US taxpayer to the tune of $10 billion, talked, earlier this week, of record bonuses.

And in a big bubble, in a big park, in a big town, it's business as usual. The champagne is flowing, and models in black, and singers in black, and celeb-watchers in black, and artists in black, and hedge funders in black are baring perfect, shiny teeth and smiling, smiling, smiling, because the show's on the road, the show's still on the road, and people didn't know if the show would still be on the road, but it is. The market's alive, the market survived. The Kapoors and the Quinns, and the Opies and the Baselitzes and the Monks are flying out the door. Well, I suppose it's a door. Because it's not made of bricks and mortar, this bubble; it's made of canvas and air. It's not built to last. Of course it's not built to last. Now you see it, now you don't!

It's a perfect marriage, this age-old alliance between money and beauty. Just breathe the air that beauty breathes and you too will be beautiful, you'll be sprinkled in the stardust of that glamour, that "edginess", that cutting-edge daring, that cool. And if beauty isn't beautiful any more? If you thought it should be a gorgeous skinny blonde and actually it's a big, fat, toothless blob, lacking shape, lacking features, lacking thoughts, lacking words? Well, that's what beauty looks like these days! Trust us, we're the experts. We know about beauty. We know its market value.

How did it happen? How did it happen that men in suits screaming into phones decided that little bundles of hot air and bad debt could be metamorphosed, by sheer willpower, sheer positive thinking, sheer testosterone, into grand empires, grand empires that they themselves could rule? And how did it happen that men in McQueen and women in Westwood decided that bits of metal, or plastic, or bone – bits of metal or plastic or bone that looked like nothing, frankly, but whose value, apparently, was in the idea, which sounded like a tired, old take on Duchamp, but in spite of sounding like rubbish and looking like rubbish was, apparently very important – were worth a fortune, a fortune that only a banker, or a hedge funder, or a super-celeb, could afford?

In his staged lesson on the financial crisis at the National Theatre, David Hare asks the first question. The answer, in what he calls a "narrative" (and is, in fact, research notes for a play, which this isn't), is "the power of yes", the unwavering belief of lots of very rich, very bullish, very greedy people, that the world was theirs, that castles could be conjured in air, and that if no one ever said no, if no one ever broke rank, it would be so, because they said so. In the beginning was the word, and the word was "yes".

No one, as far as I know, has made a dramatic attempt to address the second question. Yasmin Reza's long-running crowd-pleaser Art raised questions (as an art critic would say, though they probably couldn't resist using the word "interrogate") about non-representational art and the marketplace, but this was before the pickled sharks, and dirty beds, and wax penises, and embroidered tents moved from the whimsically intriguing margins of the art world to its world-dominating, laughing-to-the-bank-and-bankers, we-are-the-dog's-pickled-bollocks centre, and peak. No wonder Damien Hirst chose to show his new selection of (execrable) paintings in the Wallace Collection, home of the "Laughing Cavalier".

Hare's The Power of Yes comes with an explanatory subtitle: "A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis". Nobody in the arts, it's implied, (as my colleague, David Lister pointed out last week), and probably nobody in the audience, could be expected to understand this tricky stuff. Never mind that they have homes, and jobs, and families, and savings, that depend on it. Never mind, in fact, that the whole fabric of society in which they function and which, if they're artists, they seek to portray, depends on it.

And these are the people who flock to see the beds, and the skulls, and the tents. They can't afford to buy them – but they would, my God!, they would if they could – but they'll gaze at them, and coo at them, and beg to go to openings at the galleries where they're displayed. They'll talk about them, and write about them, because this stuff must be important, mustn't it, it must be interesting, mustn't it, it must be good, mustn't it, because it's so – well, so unbelievably, butt-clenchingly, mind-bogglingly expensive.

Well, some of it may be good, but probably not very much of it. And even the stuff that's good isn't worth the sums it commands, because there's more wisdom in the world, as Hare powerfully conveys, than the marketplace, and there's more value than a market value and you can know the price of everything, and the value of absolutely nothing.