It took me 20 minutes to read Charles Saatchi’s book. And that included a couple of minutes dealing with the title, which caused me to squirm and gurn unpleasantly as I worked my way down it. What fearful pretension. What wishful thinking. What tosh.
Like one of those miniature bottles of perfume that arrive on the duty-free shelf in a beautifully designed bigger box, My Name Is Charles Saatchi is 95% packaging. Take out the enlarged pull-quotes, the big wanted poster masquerading as an author photo, the scattergun illustrations, and you have a piddly little question-and-answer session that might just fill a medium-sized feature in a lifestyle supplement.
The attraction of the Q-and-A format is, of course, that it allows the answerer to handpick the questions he wants to answer and then spend however long he wants composing whatever replies he chooses, in whatever style he fancies, while always seeming quick and clever. It’s a coward’s format, that takes all the pressure off any actual thinking or believing, and reduces ideas and hopes to the status of an ad man’s one-liners. Leading to this:
“Q: Do you wash your hands after you have had a wee?
A: I have an acute sense of hygiene so I wash my hands before I have a wee…
Q: What would you want on your epitaph? In what terms do you think of your legacy?
A: Just how dull do you think I am? What kind of tw** is interested in epitaphs or legacies?”
The kind, I venture to suggest, who brings out books entitled My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic. The kind who has remained the world’s most notorious collector of modern art for three decades and whose carnivorous methods of acquiring his goodies became the stuff of legend long ago. The kind who has now persuaded the BBC to let him loose on the Pop Idol format and go noisily in search of a new genius of modern art on a television screen near you this autumn. The kind who has taken over the former headquarters of Britain’s Territorial Army in Chelsea and turned it into a great big art gallery bearing his name. In huge letters. All over it. Or am I missing something here?
I can see immediately why Saatchi has decided to deal with his own considerable achievements in a format pioneered by Smash Hits in the 1980s for dealing with the dumbest boy bands. Even from the trite snippets of information gathered here, it is as clear as crystal that he is a world-class control freak. The fear of saying something deep and wrong that emanates from this book can be smelt from the other side of the bookshop.
“Q: What is your favourite Nigella Lawson recipe?
A: Nigella Lawson…
Q: What’s the point of art?
A: To stop our eyeballs going into meltdown from all the rubbish TV and films we happily look at the rest of the time.”
To witness a 66-year-old who has done as much as Saatchi – who changed the art world, in my view, and contributed more than anyone else to Britain’s miraculous transformation into a nation of modern-art lovers – resorting to the low-grade smart-arsedness of an X-Factor interviewee is monumentally disappointing. Saatchi deserves better than to have himself writing about himself. There is much about him that is mysterious and fascinating. Alas, none of it has made its way into this flaccid display of hype, clearly designed to trigger interest in that upcoming television series.
Among the many things we do not find out in this book is why Saatchi likes what he likes or buys what he buys. All it appears to take is for something to send his eyeballs into “meltdown” and that is that. This shocking absence of a guiding principle or nourishing worldview is the new thing that Saatchi brought to the art world. For all its flaws, the art world remains a sanctuary for idealists and believers. In my experience, which is longer even than Saatchi’s, it offers its inhabitants an alternative to the prosaic textures of the full-on capitalist lifestyle and the crummy realities of modern life. At least it used to.
Saatchi’s dubious achievement was to sneak in there with attitudes and principles that had worked perfectly for him as Margaret Thatcher’s chosen ad man: extreme ruthlessness, total faith in the market place, a complete lack of sentimentality. A lion had wandered in among the sheep. Alas, the long and brilliant career he had as an ad man before his art-world years is the subject of just a couple of tweets here. We learn that he worked with David Puttnam, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker at the advertising agency CDP in the 1960s. And that, unlike them, he has not yet been handed a knighthood.
One thing the Q-and-A format does give you is a sense of the answerer’s default position on himself. Among Saatchi’s more unlikely characteristics is a tendency to play down all his achievements and belittle himself. Tweet after tweet casts him as the thicko loser with two O levels who blundered into advertising and was lucky enough to find himself surrounded by real talents. As for art: “Obviously, you can be as thick as a brick to buy art all day long.” Obviously.
I wish I were a Freudian psychologist who understood the traumatic motivation for this ridiculous self-delusion. Alas, I’m just a hungry art critic who was promised some steak but ended up with peanuts.