Charles Saatchi and his art of patronage

It is like Simon Cowell announcing that he had discovered a talented singer called Mick Jagger

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Charles Saatchi and his gallery have decided, it seems, that painting is where it is at. Painting - you remember it, surely? One artist, with a paintbrush and a selection of colours in tubes or on a palette, acrylic, oil or, who knows, even watercolour, putting it on a canvas until he reaches the edges and it looks like something. Or not. Until recently, an artist has been someone with the phone number of a good technical workshop and the ability to persuade investors to hand over a down payment. From now on, you may recognise an artist by the burnt sienna on his cuffs.

Charles Saatchi and his gallery have decided, it seems, that painting is where it is at. Painting - you remember it, surely? One artist, with a paintbrush and a selection of colours in tubes or on a palette, acrylic, oil or, who knows, even watercolour, putting it on a canvas until he reaches the edges and it looks like something. Or not. Until recently, an artist has been someone with the phone number of a good technical workshop and the ability to persuade investors to hand over a down payment. From now on, you may recognise an artist by the burnt sienna on his cuffs.

Anyway, that is what we are to infer from the title of the new exhibition at his gallery, The Triumph of Painting: Part One, a title as screamingly pompous as a 1974 album by Yes. Painting is back! Painting is exciting! Painting is happening again! And the proof is that Charles Saatchi is buying it, and - we may conclude - is propelling some new artists into the spotlight, just as he did years ago with Damien Hirst, Ron Mueck and what's-her-face off the telly. And to launch the whole thing, there's a party so enormous, even I've been invited.

Actually, I'm not going - there's quite a smart party the same night. And though the exhibition contains some very good painters, the whole enterprise is so tiresome in its tone that it may take some effort to shove past Mr Saatchi's army of bright-nosed acolytes in their spotty tabards accosting anyone walking north of Waterloo Station and visit the exhibition at all.

It reminds me terribly of those articles in Sunday newspapers written entirely for the amusement of Private Eye. Is poetry the new rock and roll? Is Rowetta X Factor the new Kiri Te Kanawa? Is cake-icing the new comedy? Is conceptual art the new sampler-making? Is embroidery the new pornography? Is Lego the new cocaine? Is opera the new football? Is painting the new Art? One could go on all day - it isn't very hard. But the truth is that all these activities, and any one can think of, carry on energetically whether the light of metropolitan fashion happens to be falling on them or not. This is particularly the case of painting. Anyone who seriously follows art will know that not only has painting never gone away, but over the last 20 years, a lot of seriously impressive work has gained a lot of popular support.

Even limiting yourself to this country, the names of Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Patrick Caulfield, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and dozens of others leap to mind, all doing splendid, individual work. They are grand, established names, but among younger artists Gary Hume, Jenny Savile, Chris Ofili, Glenn Brown and Fiona Rae have put together substantial reputations at a time when it was supposed that nobody was interested in painting.

All that is being claimed here, surely, is the circular argument that painting has now triumphed because it is being given pride of place in the Saatchi Gallery: conversely, it is being given pride of place there because it has triumphed. It is a peculiar claim, suggesting that triumph can only be proclaimed from the old GLC building. It looks much more peculiar when you examine the painters included in Mr Saatchi's new show, who conspicuously don't need any kind of patronage from that direction.

I laughed my head off when I saw that one of Mr Saatchi's "discoveries" was Hermann Nitsch. Nitsch has been immensely famous since the early 1970s, and very busy before then; his "Orgien Mysterien Theater" were celebrated mid-70s art scandals, with their large numbers of slaughtered animals. No doubt Herr Nitsch is politely pleased that Saatchi has bought some of his works, but it doesn't seem likely that it will make much difference to an immensely famous career. It is a bit like Simon Cowell announcing that he has discovered a talented singer called Mick Jagger.

And the others are pretty much the same. Martin Kippenberger and Jorg Immendorff are two of the most famous German artists: Peter Doig has been around and admired for years; Luc Tuymans has just had a big show at Tate Modern, so isn't remotely unfamiliar even to insular London audiences.

Let's face it: we know all about these people. The Saatchi Gallery is not even leaping on a bandwagon; it is trying to further a creaky reputation by harnessing it to some already very solid ones, and pretending that it is leading the way. Saatchi is an influential collector, but not as vital a presence in the market of reputations as he likes to think. The artists in his collection who have made a substantial reputation are the good ones, who would have done all right anyway. The ones in the present exhibition need him even less, since their reputations are solidly made, and it is absurd to pretend that the Saatchi Gallery's change of heart has any general significance whatsoever.

Journalists are used to hard-bitten editors asking the question "What's the story here?" Well, what is the story? Charles Saatchi starts to like painting? Rich man buys works by already famous artists? Beats me. It looks very much like a man selling popcorn in a cinema lobby, under the impression that since the film starts after people stop buying popcorn, it couldn't begin without him.

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