a review of reviews – newspeak: british art now at the saatchi gallery

5 August 2010 § Leave a comment

In Chelsea on a fine and sunny day there seemed to be no reason not to take a casual stroll around the Saatchi Gallery just off the Kings Road. It is an impulse in which I am not alone – last year the Saatchi had two of the three most visted shows in the UK. Having always championed young british talent, infamously of course at Sensation! in 1997, Charlie has recently cast his eye in the direction of the Middle East, USA, India and China. Now back with British artists there was great anticipation of what this exhibition – part one of two (the second to open 27 October) – would reveal.

However, what particularly interested me was how the major critics from the UK nationals have made of this exhibition. More, I was intrigued in the different ways they have viewed it. What are the stand-out works here? What then is the future of British art? Which artist is worth investing in?

John Wynne - Untitled


Saatchi has never been one for understatement; The Triumph of Painting, The Shape of Things To Come, Sensation! All imply a definitive judgment and invite contradiction. The title Newspeak was no exception and was roundly attacked. This Orwellian word represents a reductive language whilst Saatchi proudly speaks of ‘expanding and multiplying’ visual languages. The fact that only two of 29 artists shown are under thirty prompted others to call it ‘Oldspeak’ whilst Brian Sewell (Standard) brilliantly and humorously compares Orwell’s (and Saatchi’s) Newspeak with the ‘jargon and jabberwocky of present-day artspeak’ in the gallery handbook.

Once addressing the exhibition the writers, almost in unison, branded it unco-ordinated – ‘a mess… the contents of someone’s attic’ (Independent), ‘underwhelming to overambitious’ (Guardian), ‘scattergun and unfocused’ (FT). The quality was perceived as indifferent; ‘some good, some mediocre, some ghastly’ (FT), ‘one or two instances of inspired brilliance’ (Guardian), ‘20% is really very good’ (Independent’), ‘Not quite but nearly’ (Times), ‘… in such feeble company three works are perhaps outstanding’ (Standard).

Strangely, despite this criticism, to a man (and woman) the critics were loath to criticise Saatchi. On the contrary, he was generally congratulated as one who stands head and shoulders above other public British gallery curators as one willing to take a chance. He treads (and buys) where others fear and is rightly lauded for it.

With broad agreement then that the exhibition only produced a smallish proportion of worthwhile work one would assume that this accord would extend – broadly – to which pieces these were. Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Of the seven reviews (Independent, Guardian, Telegraph, Standard, Sunday Times, Times and FT) only one artist only each ‘scored’ with 5 and 4, three got 3, four got 2 (despite one being labelled a ‘genius’). In all no less than nineteen of the 29 artists received positive comments. Varied works were variously described as  ‘litter, ‘fit for the bonfire’, ‘disgusting’, ‘a joke’ or ‘the work of an infant’ whilst at the same time being praised by other critics – hilarious! I will name names and provide a ‘league table’ in the next posts!

So, how about the future of British art. Well, all the critics all agreed that it was bit of a ‘hotchpotch’ with some ‘instances of inspired brilliance’ or ‘genius’ even. There was surely then a general consensus about what this uneven view represented about what is happening in this area? Nope. Not even close. The Guardian and FT do not even bother to decide. Charles Darwent (Independent) quite enjoyed the exhibition and, presumably (he does not quite say), feels that the outlook is promising. Richard Dorment (Telegraph) worried that Saatchi’s teaming with Philips de Pury weakened any message. Rachel Campbell-Johnson (Times) thought that there was plenty of room for optimism whilst Waldemar Januszckak (Times) felt Britain still has talent.

I will leave the last thought for Brian Sewell (Standard). If thought somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned in some quarters, he is still without doubt one of the most perceptive and insightful critics around. Wise enough to see though the ‘weasel words’ of artspeak he has the courage to criticise where others sit on the sidelines. Ignore what he has to say at your peril;

‘The rest of Newspeak [other than three works] is at best cliche, kitsch and the ironic subversion that is the joke so often played by the post-modernist. It demonstrates how swiftly the energy of the YBA’s evaporated, leaving no useful legacy for their successors, nothing on which they could build. One might reasonably conclude British art is dead.’

Go Brian!  I look forward to part 2 in October and see if more of a consensus emerges.

If you liked this post please make a comment or like it. If you like the blog please subscribe for regular updates (top right of page). Many thanks! akuta

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