E Jane Dickson: The pious posturing of the art establishment

It plays the 'artistic licence' trump but assumes there is a 'right' and'wrong' sort of buyer for artworks
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The Independent Online

I have an idea for an art installation. Countless pairs of knickers in an enormous, elegant twist. I'll call it The Great Art Controversy. People will pay to come and hate it and I shall laugh, rather as I imagine Jake and Dinos Chapman are laughing now at the outraged buzzing around their latest work, If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be.

As concepts go, it's not a bad one; original watercolours by Adolf Hitler overpainted by psychedelic rainbows, hearts and smiley faces. The jeu d'esprit rests on Hitler's early ambition to become a painter. Twice rejected by the Viennese Academy of Fine Art, the Führer remained convinced of his talent in this direction. "As soon as I have carried out my programme for Germany," he pledged, "I shall take up painting. I feel that I have it in my soul to become one of the great artists of the age and that future historians will remember me not for what I have done for Germany, but for art."

The dreariness of the landscapes "annihilated" (their word) by the Chapmans points up the fatuousness of this claim; the point made about the modern obsession with psychology in art – nothing in the bland facility of Hitler's oeuvre bespeaks psychosis – is reasonable, but this is not the question exercising the chatterati.

As usual, when it comes to the public reception of art, our liveliest concern is not with the material, but with the market. The Chapmans bought up the Hitler canvases from private collectors (one shudders to think) for a total of £115.000. Tim Marlow, director of exhibitions at the White Cube gallery which is marketing If Hitler Had Been a Hippy..., is quick to allay questions about the morality of paying good money for paintings by a bad man. "We bought them anonymously," he says, "because the last thing we wanted was to increase the market for Hitler's work."

Well, not before the gallery gets its cut. Suitably transformed by the Chapmans, the 13 paintings are now back on the market for £685,000. And, should there be lingering concerns about the artwork being snapped up by Nazi sympathisers, White Cube has stated that it will be extremely careful about whom it sells to. What does this mean, precisely? That prospective buyers with duelling scars and monocles should consider using an agent?

The idea that contemporary art is such strong medicine that it should be a controlled substance has been tried before. By Hitler. It didn't work then and it won't wash now. No one would suggest that buyers interested in the work of Salvador Dali (a creep of the highest order) should be screened for dodgy politics and/or sexual preferences, but such is our grim fascination with the Nazi period that normal reason is suspended.

The Chapmans are no strangers to controversy (statues of young girls with genitals where their faces should be are not to everyone's taste) but the opportunity to capitalise on the awful mystique of Hitler is unmatched. Personally, I have no problem with the price of If Hitler Had Been a Hippy... – it's not what I'd spend £685,000 on, but it's a free world and a (notionally) free market. What I have a problem with is the pious posturing of an art establishment that plays the "artistic licence" trump, but assumes there is a "right" and "wrong" sort of buyer for culturally significant artworks.

It was the same story earlier this month when Roman Abramovich slapped down £60m for Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and Francis Bacon's Triptych. His girlfriend, apparently, is setting up her own gallery in Moscow and two world-class paintings will start her off nicely. Yet from the hand-wringing in Cork Street, you'd have thought the Chelsea FC owner was going to set up the Freud and the Bacon in goal and use them for penalty practice.

There's hypocrisy at the heart of this snobbishness, because the "right" sort of art buyer has always been the one with the most cash. And there is little to suggest that a glancingly sensitive nature goes with big money. Peggy Guggenheim bought art the way most of us buy shoes; her collections bring pleasure to millions. When asked why she loved Max Ernst, she replied, "Because he is so beautiful and because he is so famous." For the Saatchis and the Sainsburys and, yes, the Abramoviches no less than for the Medicis, buying great art is a way of making sense of senseless money.

When it comes to the morality of the art market, there are more urgent claims on our attention. In 1988 it was agreed by 44 countries that artworks looted by the Nazis or bought at compulsory auction during the Second World War would be identified and restitution made to the rightful, predominantly Jewish owners. The actual process, -however, has been painfully slow and complicated by counterclaims from the families of former Nazis whose goods were seized by the Russians .

It's a moral conundrum that could take generations to unpick, in stark contrast to the Chapman Brothers' "problem" which has a brutally simple solution. Here's the idea, boys ( commission free). If you're seriously worried about If Hitler Had Been a Hippy... going to the "wrong sort" of buyer, flush 'em out by making it known that the proceeds are going to a charity for Holocaust victims. That way, the price – and the value – will be right.