Show Hide image

Values and the market

Has money stripped art of all meaning? Yes, argues the sage Robert Hughes

<strong>Mona Lisa Curse

What a face. No, not the Mona Lisa; I mean Robert Hughes. In old age, and having recovered from a near-fatal car accident, he looks more than ever like a Roman emperor, the swollen, bad-tempered kind who eats larks while simultaneously despatching orders for the murder of his enemies.

Towards the end of Mona Lisa Curse (21 September, 6.30pm), his magnificent polemical film about the art world and money, there was a brilliant scene - one of the most excruciating things I've seen on television since The Office - in which he went to visit a rich young man who collects paintings by Andy Warhol. Hughes lowered his aching bones into one of the rich young man's pristine modern furnishings and, still clutching his ebony walking stick, proceeded to quiz him about his idol. "Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?" he said. No, squeaked the rich young man, but he would have liked to; he was a visionary. Hughes drew breath, and then blood. "Well, I knew him a little," he said. "He was one of the stupidest men I ever met."

The timing of the screening of this film was sublime: just a week earlier, an auction of Damien Hirst's work by Sotheby's had exceeded all expectations, the pieces selling for prices far above house estimates. Meanwhile, investment banks were toppling like towers of playing cards, blown clear away by a single puff of doubt. How could this be? Hughes did not have the answer to this question, but on the subject of how the art world got so rotten, he was convinced that the beginnings of its decay lay in the Mona Lisa's 1963 trip to New York, where she was greeted by the Kennedys and rows of gallery-goers as long as the night.

This was the beginning of art "losing its meaning". Paintings were henceforth to be like "film stars, with the museum as their limo". The idea of art as investment took off. Collectors began selling their paintings rather than giving them to the great galleries. The great galleries, in turn, were priced out of the market, and became ever more dependent on the generosity of the very rich. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hughes wandered up to a list of "founders" on the wall. As he pointed out, they are funders, not founders, but the museum is now in the business of flattery; air kisses at the right parties are no longer enough.

So, prices rise, and rise. These sums, argued Hughes, have only one cultural function: to strike you blind. There was plenty of blindness in evidence in his film. I especially hated the "art adviser" we saw at an art fair. As she stared at one expensive piece of crap after another, her attitude was mostly: this would look great in Janet and Malcolm Very-Rich-Indeed's loft. Once, a woman like her might have shopped for three-piece suites; now she hunts down edgy triptychs.

Hughes dealt with such parasites expertly, and viciously. Of the expansion of galleries such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre into global brands, he was despairing: when a branch of the Louvre is the 19th hole on an Abu Dhabi golf course, as it soon will be, it's probably time to "shut up shop".

And yet, he must not have it all his own way. I revere Hughes. I interviewed him once and he was predictably horrible to me, but still my admiration endures. He is the best art critic writing today by a thousand miles, muscular as a boxer, scholarly as a don, funny as all hell. But he is also an elitist snob. It is not up to him to judge those who queue to see blockbuster shows. How else are they meant to look at great paintings? How does he know that they are mere "passive art imbibers"? Nor do I think that art has lost its meaning - and I bet he doesn't either, on a sunny day, when he's drunk just the right amount of caffeine and received a royalty cheque in that morning's post. You can turn down the din that surrounds great work - or rather, the work turns the din down for you once you're standing in front of it. As for the dumb collectors of Warhol and Hirst, let them throw their money around if they want to: we know what they're buying, even if they don't.

Pick of the week

John Adams
27 September, 5.30pm, More4
The latest acclaimed HBO mini-series dramatises the life of one of the US's founding fathers.

Jamie's Ministry of Food
30 September, 9pm, Channel 4
Jamie Oliver heads to Rotherham to take on the "burger birds".

Little Britain USA
3 October, 9.30pm, BBC1
Vicky Pollard hits Disneyland.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008