Art & Commerce: A New ‘Sensation’

However calculated controversy is to market Charles Saatchi’s stable of young British artists in “Sensation,” nobody could have predicted the political and cultural firestorm sparked by the Brooklyn Museum of Art show.
Amazingly, three weeks after Rudy Giuliani began his impassioned effort to shut down the exhibition, national public debate about its appropriateness continues to grow. Even presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore have been drawn into the fray.
The show has something to offend everyone: sliced animals in formaldehyde; a portrait of an English child murderer painted in kids’ handprints; an artificial cow’s head filled with live maggots; life-size nude mannequins of little girls with erect penises. But Giuliani has taken aim at a painting of the Virgin Mary smattered with elephant dung and surrounded by porno shots of asses. Saatchi shrewdly used outrage to hype “Sensation” in previous installations in London and Berlin, but he clearly underestimated the take-no-prisoners resolve of Giuliani.
As a New York state Senate hopeful, Giuliani has used “Sensation” to squeeze Democratic rival and free-speech advocate Hillary Clinton into taking a position that could alienate the city’s large block of Catholic voters.
So as crowds flock across the river to the city’s less-popular art venue–thank the mayor for the kind of publicity money can’t buy–“Sensation” has come to be about everything but art.
Even art-world insiders who have criticized the show as inconsistent and dated are forced to publicly defend it on principle. Taking a stand on “Sensation” has turned into political shorthand during the run-up to contentious Senate and presidential elections.
(If Saatchi’s past involvement in Tory campaigns is any indication, he finds himself on the opposing side of politicians who would otherwise share many of his views.)
Less under scrutiny, but much more interesting, is what the current uproar reveals about Charles Saatchi’s fascinating role and influence in the art world. As befits a man who made his fortune in the creative sector of industry, Saatchi–more than anyone else–has helped to blur the lines between art and commerce.
One of the most prominent patrons of contemporary art, Saatchi has played a major role in shifting the traditional balance of power from museum curators and critics to private
collectors. He typically buys enough art to create his own movement–young American artists in the ’80s, young British artists in the ’90s–then generates hype to draw attention to the work.
He uses his own gallery and public museums to showcase the work, then tests the marketplace through auctions to determine the value of the Saatchi Collection.
This is why “Sensation” has struck a raw nerve among segments of the art world. In the view of many, public institutions shouldn’t devote entire shows to the work of a private collector, particularly one who is active in the marketplace.
Whether the debate is about free speech or free-market art practices, no one comes out a winner, save one person: Charles Saatchi. The reclusive ad man emerges as a master showman, taking a product of dubious distinction and making it the talk of a nation.