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Jewish World Review Oct. 8 1999/ 28 Tishrei, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Money is in the eye of the art dealer -- "In America, an artist can get away with many things within the art world, but he is crushed if exposed to public opinion.''

-- Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker

Peter Schjeldahl, like everyone else in Manhattan's tiny but provocative art world, is talking about the sensational art exhibit, "Sensation,'' at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. His remark reflects the elitist opinion of certain critics who regard themselves as the high priests of aesthetic judgment and the public's judgment as worthy of nothing more than contempt.

They look at the unwashed public like The Washington Post looks at evangelical Christians, "uneducated and easy to command.'' The Post apologized for the description, but history will be the judge of self-important critics, exposing their arrogant mistakes and egotistical judgments. They condescend to lead the Philistines, but the path they choose to lead us down is littered with hype and jargon.

A critic of high art once boasted to me that he knew who would be considered the great artists of our time because he writes the art history books. But art history texts are littered with dead artists celebrated by establishment art critics whom nobody can recall today. Museums are filled with fine art works that many contemporary critics overlooked -- or hated.

The art controversy over "Sensation'' is useful because it focuses the public mind on important issues corrupting the art world. Those who scream "censorship'' at Mayor Rudy Giuliani's determination to withdraw taxpayer support from the show use the word carelessly.

There's a big difference between an artist's freedom to create whatever art he wants to, and a "right'' to have his art thrust upon innocent taxpayers who pay the freight. The National Endowment for the Arts discontinued funding individual artists when that difference was impressed upon them by an outraged public.

This Brooklyn controversy further exposes the incestuous connections between artists, art dealers, art collectors, art auction houses and now museums. The Brooklyn Museum gives its public-funded imprimatur to a collection owned by Charles Saatchi, a private London collector who also owns a gallery. The show is sponsored in part by Christie's, an auction house that auctions work by Saatchi's artists. Saatchi cleverly auctions his paintings for "charity,'' driving up art prices. The auctions create a "buzz,'' driving up prices of other works by the artists.

Charles Saatchi mints money from art. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. But there is something wrong with conflicts of interest.

"Exhibitions are supposed to be conceived by museum directors, organized by curators, and funded by wealthy individuals or organizations without an economic interest in them,'' writes Jeffrey Hogrefe in the New York Observer. This is a corrupted art market of high order, even more so when it comes to spending public museum funds for it.

It's no coincidence that Saatchi has plans to open a chain of restaurants in cities where "Sensation'' appears. The restaurants, called "Sensation,'' will be decorated by artists in the show. (Who else?) The first one is planned for the London West End. Others are scheduled for Berlin, New York, Sydney and Tokyo. Will diners enjoy sitting beneath a cow's head infested with flies and maggots, the work of artist Damien Hirst? Will Chris Ofili, focus of the controversy in Brooklyn, be represented by a work featuring elephant dung? He likes dung. We can hope the chef doesn't.

Trafalgar Square in London is a landmark with its 185-foot column as the pedestal for the famous sculpture of Lord Nelson. Three corners of the square are set off with 19th century sculptures placed on a broad majestic base -- King George IV and two military heroes. One corner of the famous square remained vacant and young British artists are competing to fill the space. Mark Wellinger, the first to display his work there has sculpted a small white marble resin figure of an ordinary-sized man, clean shaven, with short hair adorned by a crown of barbed wire. The artist says the figure represents the Christian messiah. That's hard to see because the figure is so puny and inconsequential. That's the artist's point.

A New Yorker cartoon, on a page with a profile of another one of Saatchi's artists, captures the spirit of the art market and the contempt of certain artists, critics and dealers for what many in their public audience hold dear: a man, trying to sell an abandoned church, crying out his spiel, "Great for worship then! Great for retail now!''


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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate