My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic

"How sweet of you," trills Charles Saatchi, "to think that advertising copy is written from the heart." This is the adman-turned-art collector, patron and impresario's predictably arch response to the question "Were you or are you a Tory?", spurred by Saatchi & Saatchi's "Labour isn't working" poster of 1979. Perhaps the most famous political poster in British history, with the possible exception of the same firm's risible 1997 "New Labour, new danger" effort, the advert also displayed, according to Jon Savage, a severe stylishness that could easily have placed it on a punk album cover, the first entry of this countercultural aesthetic into political life - setting the scene for a tentative alliance between Thatcherite politics and wilfully shocking, cynical, "ironic" culture that would only really come to fruition under New Labour, in its misbegotten Cool Britannia period.

Saatchi's marvellously evasive response to the question about his political sympathies is one of only ten excerpts from My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic that the publishers are authorising reviewers to quote. Charles Saatchi does not "do" interviews, and so this collection of answers to the queries of an anonymous, but, we are led to believe, select group of inquisitors marks something of a coming out. Yet the paranoia that has pervaded Saatchi's activities extends to the book itself, so although I would be delighted to quote you our protagonist's anecdotes on the advertising industry and his opinions on Mad Men, his irritated responses to gleeful questions about the Momart fire that immolated a large chunk of his collection, his McLuhan-twisting aside on Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull, or, indeed, his Nigella Lawson-related answer to the question of what he keeps in his bedroom, I cannot. Thankfully, the permitted ten quotable answers provide just enough rope.

The attempt by our hero, if not to disaffiliate himself from Thatcherism, then at least to evade any easy conflation with it, is disingenuous, to say the least. The last publication to feature his explicit involvement was Young British Art - the Saatchi Decade (1999), of which Chin-tao Wu wrote, in Privatising Culture, her study of neoliberalism and art, that not only did "the name of a private collector-cum-dealer define an entire decade's art production as if the latter owed its very existence to a single individual", but "no less revealing was the homage the book paid to Saatchi's former client and erstwhile mentor Margaret Thatcher, by having her photograph so prominently adorn its title page". This, she continues, "makes a link between a general political 'achievement' of the Eighties and a personal artistic claim for the Nineties". Yet, showing perfect synchronicity, it was in New Labour's year zero of 1997 that Saatchi's Royal Academy exhibition "Sensation" made this definition something more than arrogance. The apotheosis of Nineties amoralism, its collection of "shocking" objects caused a moral panic, cementing the mutually beneficial loop between controversial artist, collector and tabloid.

This has since been largely replaced with the sententious, mock-political, theory-garbling, freelance-curating aesthetic that could best be seen in Tate Britain's recent "Altermodern" triennial exhibition. Saatchi seems aware that his tastes are already dated; his responses here are permanently at the point where archness threatens to become charm, but never quite get there, while the enduring impression is of comfortable irony and banality, albeit of a rather inoffensive sort. Anyone expecting him to offer artistic intelligence of any kind will be disappointed - the "point of art", he opines, "is to stop our eyeballs going into meltdown from all the rubbish TV and films we watch the rest of the time".

At which point you have to remind yourself which medium boasts Adam Curtis, Mad Men and The Wire, and which can boast the egotism, empty bling and tired art-historical jokes of Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst or, indeed, any number of Saatchi discoveries. Nonetheless, he is keen to tell us that he "watches hours of television" (this is an approved quotation), and to impress upon us generally that he's a toast-eating, Match of the Day-watching, art-collecting ordinary geezer, as has long been customary for the super-rich.

“I'm not clever enough to be a cynic," as another officially quotable statement has it. This is not entirely true, judging by these answers. There is a pervasive flipness to Saatchi that will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the "creative districts" of our cities, a snarkiness that sits oddly with the romantic view of artistic genius that he clearly holds dear and his undoubted boyish enthusiasm for the work he has bought, sold and exhibited.
Saatchi's career may be of great interest to anyone wanting to chart the peculiar marriages of politics and aesthetics over the past three decades, but unfortunately the man himself is, on this evidence, the last person to ask for insight into his own activities.

My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic
Phaidon, 160pp, £5.95

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" is published by Zero Books (£9.99).


This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England