Charles Saatchi: Art's Mr Nice Guy?

With a new book, an online gallery and an X Factor-style TV show, Charles Saatchi is on a great democratic mission to bring culture to the masses. He might just succeed, says Tom Lubbock

Wednesday 09 September 2009 00:00 BST

A friend of mine with a more impressive social life than mine once compared the two Saatchi brothers. Maurice Saatchi, he had no time for. On the other hand, "Nigella's Saatchi is rather nice."

Nigella's Saatchi? What a cheek! That's hardly what we call him in the art world. He may be a shadowy presence, but we don't see him as some modest husband figure, Johnny Craddock to Nigella's Fanny. Still less do we think of him as rather nice. He is Charles Saatchi, the millionaire adman who took over contemporary art. He is ruthless power itself.

But now perhaps we should be changing our minds. Saatchi: no less powerful, but using his power for good, and "rather nice" isn't half of it. He wants to transform the art world itself – to make it a place for the many, not the few.

Consider Saatchi-world and its main manifestations. There's the Saatchi Gallery itself, which reopened almost a year ago at new premises in Chelsea, a huge off-white three-storey space, open every day, free entry, where in great batches Saatchi shows his recent purchases.

There's the website Saatchi Online, an ever-growing display facility, through which artists of every kind can show (for free and more or less uncensored) and sell their work. There's the coming TV talent show, running in November, where aspirant artists will be whittled down from 3,000, to 100, to six, to one, getting art-coaching on the way – an art X-Factor, working title Saatchi's Art Stars. Strictly Come Saatchi, surely?

The story is clear enough: demystification, democratisation. Gallery, website, talent show, these are all ways of bringing artists and public together, without the art world getting in the way. The art world is the villain of this story, with its insiderism and snobbery, its claim to expertise and ineffable taste, its unfriendly personnel, its famous gobbledigook. And to make these points explicitly there's a fourth manifestation. A book, My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic, published this week.

It's not much of a book. Very short, very quick to read. It's a sequence of Q&As, all published previously, where journalists or members of the public submit written questions, and Saatchi replies smartly. "Brutally frank", says the blurb, but a recurring note is defensiveness, and the sore spot is "vulgarity". "The snobbery of those who think an interest in art is the province of gentle souls of rarefied sensibility never fails to entertain. Lord forbid that anyone in 'trade' should enter the hallowed portals of the aesthete. I liked working in advertising, but don't believe my taste in art, such as it is, was entirely formed by TV commercials!"

The voice is bitter but the point is fair. There is still a class war to be fought in art. Of course, in a sense, art is naturally a minority pursuit. However many people love it, bums on seats don't count. The marketplace is small. Unlike with books and music and films, it's only a few very rich people (with professional advisers at their elbows) who decide success. The public often feel like outsiders permitted a privileged peep. So far. But now a very rich man has decided to try to turn the tables.

Look at the new gallery. You walk straight in off the square, with no threshold-anxiety, hardly any apparatus of entrance to impede your way into the exhibition spaces. There's no place for art's accessory-talk either. The last Saatchi Gallery, in County Hall, had the most ridiculous wall-texts you can imagine. In Chelsea, the works appear naked, with not a word to tell you what to think – not even to explain why the current show, Abstract America, has so many non-abstract works. Trust your eye. Make your own mind up. The works are there for our judgement; they don't hang in judgement over us.

And Saatchi himself plays the role of philanthropic mediator. He goes around the world, trawling it for art, buying in bulk whatever is new and takes his fancy. He puts it on show in his enormous space. He sells it off again. Everyone benefits, no? Mr Saatchi's name is magnified. The artists get some money and fame. We the public are treated to enormous exhibitions in rapid succession. The Saatchi Gallery doesn't keep a permanent collection. It has had three complete turnovers of work since it opened last October, of Chinese, Middle Eastern and American art, and little of it had been seen in London before. You can always be sure of a surprise.

Saatchi Online goes further. Work by tens of thousands of artists – sculptors, painters, illustrators, photographers, videoists – is there to be inspected. There is no quality control, and much of it (as you'd expect) is at an amateur level, and I think Saatchi exaggerates a little when he says that "they're as good and as bad as you would see on any tour of contemporary galleries." But as with the Saatchi Gallery, "people are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what they like or don't. And it's a lot less intimidating looking around online than having some creepy gallery person patronising you. The site is helping to get lots of artists' work out of their studios and on to collectors' walls. It's thrilling, and I wish it had happened earlier."

The talent show has yet to appear. They're keeping mum so far about what the public participation is going to be. There must be some. Saatchi has said: "I am looking forward to the prospect of finding undiscovered British talent. Anyone with a fresh, creative approach should enter, because nobody knows where the next art star will emerge from."

But the next art star always comes out of the blue. Far more radical is the idea that this artist should be chosen – to some extent, anyway – by a public vote. As far as I know, that's never happened before. And giving the public the power of choice is likely to open its minds to contemporary art in a way that no education programme would ever achieve.

So this is the Saatchi project, to use his resources to open contemporary art up. The goal is to cut out the professionals, the galleries and the curators, to extend art's audience, to empower both hopeful artists and the wider public. And what this amounts to is redefining artistic success. It's asking ambitious artists to change their ambitions – to stop worrying about the right galleries, the right collectors, the right shows.

A big ask. How many serious artists are going to be content with selling on that internet park-railing, Saatchi Online? Indeed how many "collectors" have bought from it – or is anyone who has an artwork on their wall now a collector? As for Saatchi's Art Stars, how eagerly the art world must be anticipating looking down on the whole business!

Never mind that the winner is promised a place in a Saatchi show in St Petersburg next year. Will he/she gain and sustain a career outside of Saatchi's fief? Come to that, is it such glory any more to be shown at the Saatchi Gallery? There, too, quality control has begun to look weak. Art passes through his hands in such quantity. My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic? Yes, and he must feed his habit. He needs so much he can't be too choosy.

On the other hand, perhaps Saatchi's great democratic experiment will succeed. Perhaps he'll manage to turn the whole contemporary art world into something like the Royal Academy Summer Show, where nobody feels patronised, and every visitor is a potential "collector". Then we're going to need all the art we can get.

'My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic' by Charles Saatchi, is published by Phaidon (£5.95)

Reading Saatchi's mind: Extracts from the new book

How do you feel about art that you have bought that turns out to be worthless, or worth much less than you have paid for it?

How to answer this question with total transparency... OK, it's very handy if the art you buy goes up dramatically in value. But there is something equally satisfying in feeling that you have appreciated work that nobody else quite gets, and aren't you a clever clogs for spotting it. Will that do?

Was Sensation your high point and have you been going backwards since?

Well, it is never nice to be told your best days are behind you. But you're probably right. I certainly was more dynamic once, building my advertising business and my art collection with ferocious energy. Now that I have fizzled out, I still enjoy putting on shows of art that I like and introducing new artists to our visitors, so I hope it makes it worthwhile to plod on.

Who are your living heroes?

Gregory Peck in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront'. Cary Grant in 'North by Northwest'. Burt Lancaster in 'Sweet Smell of Success'. Gary Cooper in 'High Noon'. They live forever, if you grew up in the local Rialto.

How much television do you watch and do you prefer 'Big Brother' or 'Newsnight'?

I watch hours of television. My favourites are 'University Challenge' and 'Match of the Day' and almost anything on the ironically named Living channel. 'Big Brother' is out of the question, even for me.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in