Interview: Charles Saatchi, art collector
Since he began this series for The Daily Beast, Charles Saatchi has received hundreds of questions from readers all over the world. Every few days, he responds to 10 of the latest on any subject under the sun.
Charles Saatchi has been one of the most influential forces of the contemporary art scene. Founder of global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and the most influential art collector of our time, he has vigorously shaped the contemporary art scene while contradictorily remaining an elusive, even reclusive figure.
Though he—famously—refuses to be interviewed, you can now read his brutally frank responses to a battery of questions put to him by leading journalists and critics as well as members of the public. If you have a question you would like to ask Charles Saatchi, please email [email protected]. This is part of a continuing series of new questions from readers and answers from Saatchi himself. Check back soon for the next installment.
What makes you cry?
I would dearly love to claim it would be a deeply moving piece by Brahms, or a heartbreaking last chapter in a great work of literature, or the cruelties of the world suffered by innocents, or simply hammering my thumb instead of the nail.
I am sorry to say I’m not often teary. I blubber like a baby when I do cry however, but my wailing is probably just a result of having my vanity punctured by some slight or other.
What is the meaning of life?
Are you easily bored?
As we all know, a bore is a man who has nothing to say and says it anyway. Rather like my answers to these questions you might feel. Here are my favorite students of boredom:
The man who suspects his own tediousness, is yet to be born. Thomas B. Aldrich
The nice thing about being a celebrity is that, if you bore people, they think it’s their fault. Henry Kissinger
I am quite serious when I say that I do not believe there are, on the whole earth besides, so many intensified bores as in these United States. No man can form an adequate idea of the real meaning of the word, without coming here. Charles Dickens
His shortcoming is his long staying. Lewis L. Lewisohn
I spent a year in that town, one Sunday. Warwick Deeping
If you had a bumper sticker on your car, what would it be?
Jesus loves you. But I’m his favorite.
Should drugs be legalized?
Having only taken a single puff of a marijuana cigarette 30 years ago, I am possibly the wrong person to ask.
I do have views, predictably. Heroin is clearly a marvelous product, as it is so widely admired by satisfied customers all around the world.
I can’t be doing with hypodermics, track marks, or the heated spoon paraphernalia, but if heroin could be offered in more convenient capsule or liquid form, and be easily available at Marks & Spencer or Waitrose, that would be a considerable boon.
As my last years are likely to be crippled with arthritis, dementia, emphysema, and heaven knows what else, the prospect of idling away my decline in blissful serenity makes a long life sound quite appealing.
Alongside a few like-minded friends, I am looking for a large home somewhere to establish our commune for aged would-be smack heads. It will be very wheelchair friendly, with many kind nurses to maintain and feed us, change channels on our large plasma screens, and keep us permanently euphoric on Tesco own-brand Freebase Delight.
Why is there an "emerging artists" age prejudice? Sometimes artists get going later in life due to circumstances—but all attention is on "young" artists, competitions are age restricted, etc.
Old British Artists (OBAs) doesn’t quite have the same zing as Young British Artists (YBAs).
I have, believe me, looked at such a roundup of geezers, but it’s not deeply uplifting dealing with crotchety older folk like me.
I hope you find Carmen Herrera, who sold her first painting when she was 89, as inspiring as I do:
“Perhaps it’s been a good thing I was able to work for so many years without recognition. I was left alone to refine and distil my art for decades, paring things down to their essence. I have no regrets, no complaints, and my work is more important to me than ever. I’m not as well as I would like to be, but as soon as I begin painting all my aches and pains disappear. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had been more successful when I was young. Now it’s nice, and I have more money than I could ever have imagined earlier in my life. Yet I’m not overwhelmed by it at all.
I’ve always been a private person, and my work is my private life—I’d resent it if I felt people were intruding when I was trying to paint. But it is very pleasant to be recognized a little bit—I’ve made it on to the cover of The New York Times without having to kill anyone. All I had to do was get old. The world came to me, eventually.
I just had to wait 94 years, that’s all.”
Carmen Herrera at 94, who now has a work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
How many foreign languages do you speak?
I am too insecure to try my schoolgirl French, or my few snatches of German and Italian, unless it is quite unavoidable. My pantomime levels of incompetence make these examples of English translations from around the world especially delightful:
Do you think America or Europe has a better group of artists making contemporary art, and why do you think that is?
I don’t play Art Olympics.
The U.S., U.K., and Germany have the best art schools so, not surprisingly, grow the most sophisticated artists. But I enjoyed throwing myself at Chinese art, Indian art, Middle Eastern art for our opening year of exhibitions, and found enough work that was invigorating.
There is always an energetic, but unsubtle claque talking up Russia, South America, Japan, Wherever, as the next hot ticket, the new investment goldmine, the source of emerging superstars.
I’m sure their reasons are completely patriotic and indeed, altruistic.
Are you really as handsome as your photo on The Daily Beast website? You must be constantly batting women away.
How does your wife deal with it, and is she the jealous type?
No woman has shown the faintest interest in me in many years, except in a dutiful way if stuck next to me at a dinner party.
My current wife has no need for a jealous bone in her pneumatic body.
How would you describe yourself if you did not have art in your life?
Bored, and just another rich dullard. Does your wife do all the cooking at home?
I’m sure Nigella’s cooking is wonderful, but a bit wasted on me.
I like breakfast cereals, cheese on toast, and chocolate biscuits and when I became obese with my non-stop gorging, she was most disconcerted to be given the blame.
I managed to lose the barrels of extra lard I had accumulated, by living on nine eggs a day for many months. It was so unpleasant a diet it released me from taking any pleasure in my favorite foods again.
The children and our friends seem to like Nigella’s cooking, however.
Do you yourself perform any artwork such as painting, sculptures, play music etc. in your spare time (do you have any spare time?)?
I have spare time, and fill it by answering questions, which I find less daunting than the other activities you offer.
When the proverbial shit hits the fan, what your favorite thing to say and do?
I have just screeched at myself for some stupidity or other, and would have head-butted me into a heap, if it were possible.
What do you look for in employees?
There are three kinds of people in the world.
People who make things happen.
People who watch things happen.
People who say “What happened?”
What happens when you've been given immense talent to create magnificent works of Neo-Classical art but you don't because you don't give a shit because nobody else does either? In other words, is real artistic talent rare or not? And if it is then why doesn't anybody seem to care about it anymore?
By and large talent is in such short supply, mediocrity can be taken for brilliance rather more than genius can go undiscovered. The great majority of artists around the world don’t have dealers to represent or show their work. It makes it pretty well impossible to get your efforts seen, with most dealers too busy or too lazy to visit studios—and who can blame them. They have probably become a bit disenchanted from seeing acres of slides and transparencies of tragic work foist upon them by desperate artists. In reality, most dealers find new artists to show through recommendations from their existing stable—artists often urge their dealers to look favourably upon the work of their friends; furthermore, dealers usually believe artists are good judges of other artists’ work. All in all then, if you’re not in the right artistic social circles, didn’t go to a hip art school, don’t quite fit in, it can be hell to extract much interest from dealers and collectors.
I hate to sound like a romantic adolescent, but I believe artists don’t generally see art as a career choice, they simply can’t overcome their desire to make art, and will live on little income for as long as they have to, before they start to sell their work—or give up and get a paying job.
The best introduction is obviously a good art school, so put together your portfolio, and unless you are comfortably off anyway, prepare to work nights to pay your fees.
There’s a 10% chance you will end up with a “career”, but in the meantime you should have fun, make friends and be inspired to make a go of something in the art world.
If you were offered a Knighthood, would you accept it?
It is considered bad form to even hint about knighthoods or peerages you may have been offered, but declined.
It’s obviously vulgar to accept an honour of this sort, but even more tacky to refuse one, and then be a self-aggrandizing windbag about turning it down.
It would have been a bit more meaningful once, being a Knight alongside Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad at King Arthur’s Round Table at Camelot.
In your estimation, how much of the last decade's art explosion is due to the fact that the art market functions as an unregulated stock-market? (As in, no rules re: insider trading, gaming the system, pumping & dumping...)
When you say “insider trading,” do you mean museum board members getting early notice of artists about to be given wide exposure in a touring high profile exhibition, and laying down a few works in advance? And do you also mean people who buy an artists’ work in bulk, and then put up one of their works in a major auction, and quietly bid up the price, to raise the value of all their others?
All very cynical I’m sure. But the only people who get hurt are other speculators, who overpay, and end up with a lot of artwork of a transitory value that is unsustainable. My view is that anything that is done to promote art and artists, everything that broadens the number of collectors and visitors to museums, and increases the visibility and interest in contemporary art—that’s fine and dandy.
Some people in the art world bemoan the hedge fund millionaires spending freely to acquire ostentatious displays of wealth and coolth for their giddily chic designer duplexes. Others bemoan art being treated as a commodity.
But most of the bemoaning is because the art world is stuffed full of bemoaners, bemoaning about everything.
Art collectors were spivvy and profiteering even during the Renaissance.
If you could commission an artist to create a monument to sit in some New York landmark, what artist would you commission and who would you commission them to sculpt?
Michelangelo. King George III of England, who benevolently granted America its Independence, but remains woefully uncelebrated by the current incumbents of our colony.
What kind of person spends $2 on a fancy bottle of mineral water?
Try spelling Evian backwards.
Have you lost money by entrusting it to hedge funds?
No. I think it’s a good clue that someone who invests your money is called a broker.
Do you refuse to be interviewed because you like to prepare clever and witty responses to questions like those listed here?
I can’t write. I can handle bits of simple-minded advert copy or a poster slogan, so answering questions is about all I’m good for.
The interesting ones I get from the public give the synapses a workout, and I get to spout my views without having some probing journalist doing an interview and seeing what a thicko I am, and then having the bad manners to share their distaste with all their readers.
What can adults learn from the young people of today?
Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?
What is the oddest habit you will admit to?
When driving and looking for an address, I turn down the volume on the radio.
You strike me as an impatient person. Are you?
Everything comes to those who wait, but it’s usually been left by those who didn’t.
Which of the great men of history had the most definitive clarity of purpose that informed his achievements?
I always felt Attila The Hun set the clearest path for himself, what would today be called his “mission statement.”
“Happiness lies in conquering one’s enemies, in driving them in front of oneself, in taking their property, in savouring their despair, in outraging their wives and daughters.”
What he lacked in modesty (his pet sobriquet was The Scourge of God), he made up for in wisdom; he never attempted to take on Rome or Constantinople, instead accepting payments to leave them alone.
He succeeded in devastating or annihilating everything else between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean in his short life, before he died on the wedding night of his 214th marriage.
In Hungary, Turkey and Central Asia, he remains greatly revered.
What is the one thing you would never, ever want to do again in your life?
Wet my bed.
Do you believe in the 10 Commandments?
An overrated lifestyle guide, unsustainable and largely ineffective, only succeeding in making people confused and guilty.
For example: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his house, nor his servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.
This was always obviously a no-hoper of a Commandment. Coveting is all everyone does, all the time, everyday. It’s what drives the world economy, pushes people to make a go of their lives, so that they can afford the Executive model of their Ford Mondeo to park next to their neighbor’s Standard model.
And would you want to be married to someone who nobody coveted?
Do you think artists are more intelligent than other people?
I have always been hesitant about visiting artists’ studios, and discovering that work I have admired has been made by someone nitwitted. This can be disconcerting if you believe an artist paints with his brains, not with his hands.
Do you have a collecting obsessive compulsive disorder?
My aim in life isn’t so much the pursuit of happiness as the happiness of pursuit.
What is mankind’s greatest unsolved mystery that particularily puzzles you?
Why kamikaze pilots wore helmets.
Why do you hang clothes on a washing line and not on a drying line?
Why does a fat chance and a slim chance mean the same thing?
Why is it called a TV set when you only get one?
What would you call a burger made of ham?
If man evolved from monkeys and apes why do we still have monkeys and apes?
How can you hear yourself think?
Is there art on other planets?
When I first encountered Minimal Art in New York in the late 1960’s, Sol Lewitt’s conceptual structures, Carl Andre’s metal floor plates, Donald Judd’s galvanized steel boxes, I remember having the romantic notion that this is what art would look like on a highly advanced distant galaxy.
The work appeared so far removed from all previous earthly art, it was easy to fantasize about cerebral Venusians floating ethereally above a work by Judd, and enjoying its rigorous beauty much as we would admire a Michelangelo.
If you could ask any question to Charles Darwin, James Joyce, Jesus Christ, Adolf Hitler, Henry VIII, Marilyn Monroe, Moses, what would it be?
Charles Darwin, how was your theory of evolution received when you arrived at the Pearly Gates?
James Joyce, have you ever tried reading one of your books?
Jesus Christ, what does your middle initial ‘H’ stand for?
Adolf Hitler, would it have all been different if you had found success with your paintings?
Henry VIII, which is more painful, gout or syphilis?
Marilyn Monroe, is it worth dying young to become an eternal icon?
Moses, how did you like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments?
Do you read your reviews, and take it personally if they’re negative?
I have an idiosyncratic relationship with reviews.
If they’re approving, I fear that the exhibition must be pedestrian. If they’re disobliging, I feel for the critic, who is clearly unenlightened about contemporary art, insecure about a lack of visual perceptiveness, a crabby soul, for whom it would be a kindness to cut short a morose, sour life.
A perfectly balanced perspective, as you can see.
Is bad luck often a case of stupidity?
In New York in 1977, a man was knocked down by a car, and got up uninjured.
But a bystander suggested he feign injury, lay back down in front of the car, in order to collect an insurance claim. The car rolled forward and crushed him to death. Unlucky? Or stupid? Greed can ensure both.