But bankrolling this brief cultural pre-eminence is the lesser of Saatchi’s two crucial achievements. The more significant of them was to change the relationship between contemporary art and the British people. Before Saatchi came along, most inhabitants of this sceptr’d isle had zero interest in contemporary art. I know. I was there. Now they do. Not always for the right reasons. Not always positively. But the interest has, unmistakably, been awakened. There would be no Tate Modern without Saatchi, of that I am certain. So his place in our cultural history is secure.
Yet knowing all this does nothing to alleviate the pain inflicted on my sensibilities by his latest offering, which is, for most of its length, nasty, trite, ignorant, yobbish, hasty, cack-handed and perhaps even evil. This is a show packed with unusual quantities of bad art. And that’s grim enough. Even more distressing are the questions being asked here of Saatchi’s core taste: his default aesthetics. I don’t believe he has ever been as honest about what really tugs his rope as he is being here. From beginning to end, this is entirely an “I like” show, as in “I like this” and “I like that”. The results made me cringe and gasp. If ever a man needed to go back to college and get himself an art education, it is Charles Saatchi here and now. We have the sight before us of an id that has grown unpleasantly and tragically out of control.
Saatchi’s new show is called New Blood. Of course it is. “New” is his preferred aesthetic prefix. The last new movement he claimed to have discovered, back in the mid-1990s, was called new neurotic realism, three portentous words taking the place of a quotidian one: crap. By calling his new show New Blood, Saatchi is signalling nothing except newness, a valueless commodity when unattached to any decent aesthetic content. New Blood is a vampire’s title, and all we see here is a tired count of art going through the motions, scouring the international art horizon for fresh haemoglobin, not finding any, but buying all this junk anyway.
Most of the show consists of unfamiliar work by unfamiliar artists Saatchi has discovered on his notorious viking raids around the art circuit. I once went on one of these with him while writing an article about him, and I can confirm that his modus operandi is to get into a taxi, armed with a pile of gallery bumf, and to visit everywhere, and I mean everywhere, on his list, his acquisitive eye constantly cocked, on the lookout for work that stands out. This he does weekend after weekend. It’s a process that ensures he sees more new art than any other living Briton. That’s the upside.
The downside is that the kind of work that catches his eye is the kind with instant, superficial impact. Fast art. Big Macs. Like the giant contraption for spinning useless rope that Conrad Shawcross has contributed, a creaky wooden monster called The Nervous System, which groans round in clunky orbits like a model of the planetary system made from old chairs. A deluded caption claims that The Nervous System is “mesmerising in its simplistic complexity”, when all it actually is is a failed punt at that familiar, battered, Heath-Robinson-contraption charm that Saatchi has an old-fashioned fondness for. Brian Griffiths, whose work I last remember encountering when he was a new neurotic realist in one of Saatchi’s earlier gatherings, has been recycled, and gives us a higgledy-piggledy gypsy caravan of the kind that the baddies might be riding in in a Mad Max movie, assembled from bits of furniture bought in Peckham.
Saatchi clearly appreciates these kinds of feral DIY skills. And seems blind to their kitschness. One day, he’s going to want to buy one of those front gardens sculpted entirely out of seashells that retired postmen devote their lives to in places like Bournemouth. It seems to be the very amateurishness of such creations that Saatchi enjoys. There are some collages here by a real-life Mexican tattooist called Dr Lakra, who takes pages from old Mexican magazines and adds toe-to-head tattoos to the people in them, in Biro.
If the battered contraption is the first of the core elements of Saatchi’s default taste, and a B-movie fondness for post-holocaust nuclear chic is the second, the third is a horrendous appetite for bad painting. By bad painting, I do not mean talentless painting — although there’s lots of that — but, rather, painting that is deliberately crude and slapdash and childish because it confuses crudity, slapdashness and childishness with freedom of expression. “Look at me,” it shouts, “I’m liberated.” “No, thanks,” I shout back. “Get some education.”
The show clearly has ambitions to promote this slap-happy nightclub painting as the latest thing. It seems that Saatchi has been touring northern Europe in the search for wild new northern ids to collect, and the results constitute the single most regrettable contribution to New Blood. The stupidly named Tal R, from Denmark, gives us lots of multicoloured cutout guitars in a picture called Melody, which, I read, “is like a giant Picasso drug trip”. Wow. But Tal R, useless as he is, really is a Picasso when compared with the spectacularly awful Jonathan Meese, a Berlin painter into whose anus someone appears to have inserted a red-hot poker. Meese paints whatever comes into his mind while in a state of certifiable frenzy. Never before have I seen quite as little thought put into a painting. Apparently, Meese is giving us “a pop-apocalypse with the aesthetic and energy of the real thing”. But I missed that. All I could see was a depressing absence of care, inventiveness, talent, composure or consideration.
This would not be a Saatchi show if its opening were not accompanied by a noisy media storm, but, strangely enough, the artist causing the rumpus this time is one of the few decent contributors to this disaster. Stella Vine is a stripper- turned-painter whose impeccable amateurish credentials fulfil all the above Saatchi selection criteria: her work looks as if it has been painted on the kitchen table, between strips. But the now notorious image of Princess Di talking to her butler is a pretty thing, sensuously coloured and sweet, while her portrait of the sad heroin victim Rachel Whitear — which may or may not be in the show by the time you read this, so virulent has been the outrage stirred up about it by the press — is cartoonishly empathetic. “Poor Rachel,” it seems to say. What on earth is wrong with that? It wasn’t Vine who put the image of Rachel Whitear into the public domain.
There is no doubt, however, that the fourth of Saatchi’s core taste values is a love of scatology and offensiveness. Some will dislike Liz Neal’s dress for Elizabeth I, Gloriana Banana, assembled from home-made smutty canvases. And I admit it’s silly. But it wasn’t nearly as bad, or as cheap, or as sordid, as Neal’s “chandelier”, made of wire covered in drops of pale-white silicone. It’s called Spunk Chandelier.
Pathetically, that’s exactly what it looks like. Thus, the fifth of Saatchi’s core values is a growing absence of grace.