Andrew Eaton: If anything Cowell is the new Saatchi, not the other way round.
DOES Charles Saatchi want to be the Simon Cowell of contemporary art? That's the question being widely asked as BBC2 prepares to launch School Of Saatchi, a new series beginning tomorrow in which artists try to win the favour of Britain's most famous art dealer.
I'm sure Cowell will be delighted. Another ego-boosting reminder of his ubiquity and influence. As if it wasn't enough that the entire music industry seems to be dancing to Cowell's tune, planning whole release campaigns around a timetable dictated by The X Factor, now people think the art world is following his lead too, "dumbing down" art in the process.
This is too simple. If anything Cowell is the new Saatchi, not the other way round. Saatchi was a celebrity art dealer long before Cowell was a celebrity judge; that he's as famous as many of his proteges is the reason he's got to make this show in the first place.
As for "dumbing down", that just sounds like snobbery to me. Frankly, anything that brings a subject as misunderstood as contemporary art to a large TV audience is to be welcomed. Art collector Frank Cohen, one of the show's judges (Saatchi himself will remain enigmatically off-screen), calls it an attempt to "educate people in how contemporary art is made and what it means". Matthew Collings is also on board, which is a good sign. Few TV presenters rival his blend of gravitas and bright-eyed enthusiasm.
That said, it's slightly troubling that School Of Saatchi appears to be turning yet another aspect of our culture into a popularity contest – art for success's sake rather than art for art's sake – which is, ultimately, why some people are getting het up about the show. But this is also too simple. Many musicians loathe The X Factor because it moulds performers instead of letting them express themselves in the way they choose (as Sting raged the other week). The fact is, though, much of the music industry has always done that. The X Factor just made the process public. No one has to audition, and it is not the only route to becoming a pop star, as individual talents like, say, Florence and the Machine continue to prove.
As for School Of Saatchi, yes, there is something slightly undignified about artists having to sing for their supper publicly. On the other hand, contemporary art having to explain itself clearly and concisely enough for a fickle TV audience is surely no bad thing, given the amount of impenetrable waffle that often accompanies it. Let's see.
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 22 November 2009.
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