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Robert Orman: The paperback Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi has just been published in a fourth edition. How did it all begin?
JW: First, I would like to say something about the limits of interviews in general. Readers should be sceptical of them - even this one - because the interviewee may have a poor or selective memory and can lie or duck awkward questions. He or she may also lack insight into their own actions and motives. These are some of the reasons why I and my co-author Rita Hatton were not unduly bothered by the fact that we never obtained an interview with Saatchi. At the outset of his art collecting habit he was very reluctant to grant interviews on the record. Rita was a student of mine when I lectured in
art and design history at Middlesex University. She wrote a dissertation on Saatchi, art and advertising, which struck me as a fascinating subject worthy of expansion and so we collaborated on a book. For the title we borrowed the term ‘supercollector’ from an American art critic.
RO: It was first published in 2000 by … ellipsis of London in a small paperback format?
JW: Yes. We decided to go with … ellipsis because of the distinctive and smart design of their compact books and because they had offices in Hoxton Square near fashionable art galleries. Unfortunately, after about a year the press overreached itself and went bankrupt; consequently, we received no advance and no royalties from the first edition. Chrysalis Books/Batsford books took over some of … ellipsis’s titles but they would not pay us the back royalties owed to us.
RO: Was that why you and Rita decided to publish the next edition yourselves?
JW: Yes - we employed print-on-demand type companies for the next two editions but this time there were problems with quality - one updated chapter in the third edition was printed with typos despite our best efforts. So for the fourth edition we took even more control over the design and printing of the book. It is now a much more substantial and better produced volume.
RO: How was the first edition received?
JW: It was reviewed by a range of magazines and most reviews were favourable. One described it as
‘small and malignant … slots into the pocket as
snugly as a gunslinger’s Bible’. Another declared ‘simultaneously entertaining and relentless in its
structure … good value for money’. More recently the American art critic Donald Kuspit praised the book as follows:‘… an absolutely brilliant piece of investigative reporting and documentation of the Saatchis from the very beginning and with artist’s comments about what it is like dealing with them; just well researched like you’ve never imagined … The book on Saatchi is just incredible. Saatchi got where he is through advertising. He invented Margaret Thatcher. Walker [and Hatton] documents this.’
One thing I regret about the reviews is that no one gave credit for the huge task of picture research involved or commented on the humour and wit in the text. The contemporary art scene is a mixture of tragedy and farce. Much of it is highly comical.
RO: Surely, Saacthi’s fans and supporters were not happy with the book?
JW: That’s right. Some negative assessments were published and just before the first edition appeared Saatchi got wind of it and wanted to know who we had talked to. I think he was worried that some friends might have ‘betrayed’ him. However, we responded with a note explaining that our book was not a biography, and was not concerned with the details of his private life. That it was an academic and theoretical analysis based on the massive quantity of material (books, press reports, etc.) in the public domain about his career in advertising and his art collecting activities. Plus of course our own visits to his exhibitions and our own assessments of the artists whose works he bought and sold.
RO: The book was not therefore ‘authorized’ by its subject and you openly admit it is ‘a hostile critique written from an anti-capitalist
JW: Saatchi commissions many tame critics to write for his gallery’s publications. We preferred independence so that we could undertake a more objective critique. We also think authors should be honest and upfront about their political convictions - which in our case are socialist - so that readers are under no illusions on that score. In fact, readers will not understand our objections to Saatchi’s influence in the art world without first comprehending our political objections to capitalism, consumerism, advertising and the British right-wing Party - the Tories - which the Saatchi brothers helped.
RO: Would you describe the text as Marxist?
JW Marx has been a powerful intellectual influence
but I would also like to point out that our ideas have also been influenced by other thinkers such Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Veblen and a French sociologist who studied the art market called Raymonde Moulin.
RO: Didn’t one supporter of Saatchi writing in the Guardian accuse you of anti-Semitism?
JW: Yes, the rather caricatured portrait reproduced on the cover of the first edition was criticised on those grounds. But that was an own goal because the image had previously appeared in the Guardian! I must say I deeply resent the charge of antiSemitism. What happened to the Jews during the Holocaust has haunted me since childhood. I admire Jews such as Arendt, Marx and Freud and have written favourably about Jewish artists such as Gustav Metzger, Bette Spektorov and Ron Kitaj. Since Saatchi was born in Iraq, one might as well
accuse us of anti-Iraqism. Just because a person is Jewish and rich does not mean they can expect to be exempt from analysis and criticism. It’s like the situation of Israel - critics of that nation’s treatment of the Palestinians are routinely accused of being anti-Semitic.
RO: How would you describe your own class origins? Have they influenced your attitudes to Saatchi?
JW: Certainly. I was raised in a working-class family in a provincial town but obviously after receiving a grammar school and university education, and obtaining work in libraries and art schools, I joined the ranks of the lower middleclass. For many years I taught part-time and had to sign on the dole during the summer months. I now live on the state pension and a small teacher’s pension. Any income from publishing and painting gets ploughed back into more production.
JO: Does this make you resent the wealth and philanthropy of Saatchi and other rich collectors?
JW: Yes. First, I think the divisions between rich and poor in Britain and America are far too wide and that a fairer distribution should be made by the State. Second, if you are poor it is humiliating to receive handouts from the rich, the robber barons of society whose wealth is usually derived from the exploitation of their employees. We have a quote from Baudrillard about the nature of gifts: ‘power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be repaid.’ I believe that philanthropy is an alibi designed to prevent criticism of the way our society is organized. As a painter and art critic myself, I do resent and envy the power Saatchi exercises in the field of art because of his money. As the American artist Jenny Holzer put it ‘money creates taste’.
RO: I take it this is why in places the book discusses alternatives?
JW: That’s right, such possibilities as community art. And I would prefer more support for the arts to come from the public rather than the private sector because the former is more democratic in character. Personally, I am deeply indebted for my culture to public libraries, publicly funded art galleries/museums, schools and universities, and such institutions as the ICA and the BBC.
RO: So, do you think the book can have any social or political impact?
JW: Given the discrepancies in wealth and power between Rita and I and Saatchi and his many employees, I doubt our book - with its tiny print
run - can or will have much of an impact or result in any social changes. Nevertheless, we feel it has a use-value especially for art students and young artists who do not understand how the art system functions. We suspect it is also used by newspaper journalists who write profiles of Saatchi. Perhaps its existence best serves as a reminder that not everyone agrees that art and artists should be the playthings of the rich; that not everyone accepts it is their right to control, exploit and rule the world. -----------------------------------------
Supercollector is published by the Institute of Artology for £25 and can be ordered via email@example.com