Saturday, 28 January 2012

Why do super-rich art collectors buy such vile rubbish?

You amass a ludicrous amount of money advertising crappy products to suckers, or by fiddling about with other people’s money (often bankrupting whole countries in the process), or by taking over a publicly-owned utility in some former Soviet hell-hole – and then, when you could buy lovely works of art to soothe your raddled soul and make the world a better place, you pay vast sums of money for rancidly ugly horrors. Why?

Kevin Beary posits the question in an excellent article in Taki’s Magazine, then points to a new book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson, for the first part of the answer. According to Thompson, “What the rich seem to want to acquire is what economists call positional goods; things that prove to the rest of the world that they really are rich.”

But, Beary goes on, that still doesn’t explain why they tend to buy physically revolting items (decomposing animal carcasses, faeces etc). Here’s his answer:
“…just like the alchemists sought to convince the credulous that they could turn lead into gold, so today’s wealthy collector demonstrates his possession of the ultimate positional quality. He is the magician who can change the ugly into the artistic merely by making a purchase that proclaims to the world, ‘My riches have made me a master of wizardry. I can transmute putrescence into high art.’ As Thompson succinctly puts it, ‘art history is now rewritten with a check’ —and the collector with his checkbook or electronic transfer puts a Hirst or an Ofili on the same level as a Rembrandt.”
I suspect there’s a lot of truth in that. 

Of course, the newly wealthy have been accused of bad taste since the start of the industrial revolution (at least), and governments, monarchs and religions have suppressed various kind of art throughout history. But this must be the first time that super-rich individuals have worked in tandem with state-appointed art “experts” to deliberately support and publicise current art which does dirt on the human spirit at the expense of art which, by celebrating beauty, could provide solace, joy and enlightenment for themselves and the other 99.99999999% of humanity.

Thanks, guys! We appreciate it.


  1. "...You amass a ludicrous amount of money advertising crappy products to suckers." I take it this does not refer to advertising people in general, but to one Charles Saatchi who once ate nothing but eggs for a year to lose weight and who Private Eye then labelled "King of the Fart World."

    The best story about the crassness of some rich art collectors is the old one about Lord Archer at one of his Krug and Sheperd's Pie gatherings.

    Guest: "Jeffrey, where's the loo?"

    Archer: "Straight down that corridor and turn left at the Picasso."

  2. Or maybe there's some sort of morphic resonance style understanding between the super rich that their taste should be universal and that what one wastes his money on, the next one will always pay more for it. If Roman buys a plate of festering cow's poo, then it's in Bogdan's interest that it keeps its value, or the whole fraud will collapse.

  3. Here's my favourite Saatchi story, from the Evening Standard, 2002:

    One of contemporary British art's most significant works has been unwittingly destroyed by builders, it is understood.

    Sculptor Marc Quinn's 1991 work Self - a bust of Quinn's head made from nine pints of his own frozen blood - was part of Charles Saatchi's peerless collection of contemporary British art, which also includes works by Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili.

    It is understood that builders working at Mr Saatchi's Eaton Square house, where he has a special room for Tracey Emin's £150,000 unmade bed, turned off a special freezer unit without realising it held one of contemporary art's most iconic works.

    The accident happened during work to extend Mr Saatchi's kitchen to new love and 'domestic goddess' Nigella Lawson's specifications.

    "It all went wrong when the builders started to take the old kitchen to pieces," said a source. "They turned the freezer off and moved it away from the wall.

    "After a couple of days, a pool of what looked like suspiciously like blood appeared around the freezer."