30 Sep

François Pinault may be the first plutocrat billionaire übercollector from the top of Art Review’s most powerful art world figures list who also appears to have some taste and discernment. Or at least a taste that somewhat coincides with mine… which amounts to the same thing, obviously, because we’re on the internet where opinion is daily defended to the death as if it has a factual basis in some kind of Universal Law of the Universe.

At the truly palatial Palazzo Grassi (not a tautology: some of Venice’s ostensibly grand buildings are absolute shit heaps) and its sister space, the Renaissance -industrial Punta della Dogana (a neighbour of Darth Peggy’s Guggenheim collection), quality works are given space and artists go as large as they want to; a luxury that will rarely be granted to most of us. I’ve previously been indifferent to Takashi Murakami’s work and the whole Superflat aesthetic, but at Palazzo Grassi even the massive, specially commissioned mural by him and his drones is a beautifully painted revelation that no reproduction could hope to emulate. Proper art, in other words. It changed my mind in a number of ways because I thought it was lovely.

And so it goes on. At Palazzo Grassi we get to see Chinese artists who are actually artists and not merely the technically perfect, homogenised and robotic hacks churned out by Chinese degree courses and validated by the Chinese art industry, artists who are only one step removed from Shenzhen’s notorious Dafen Village painters who apply a quasi-Fordist approach to the making of art. We all know that the bare fact of being Chinese is very hot with the art world right now and that many Chinese artists enjoy significant success both within China and in foreign markets, but they’re still for the most part technically perfect hacks with no ideas and no spark of life. I know Chinese art classes and Dafen very well from first hand experience: neither are anything but soul-crushing demoralisation factories, but the Pinault collection proves that some Chinese artists are still able to slip the noose.

Although it should be standard practice and not something worthy of special praise, even the texts that are provided about the artists and their work are fairly straight up, no bullshit and written in plain English or Italian that makes sense and provides a gently informative context. I suppose being a billionaire Pinault ought to get all this stuff right; if somebody with his resources can’t pull it off then nobody can. Even so, common sense and a modest emphasis on the artist and their work don’t cost anything. More galleries should try availing themselves of these free resources.

PS: Having mentioned Dafen’s art simulacrum factories, another reflection on reproducing an artist’s work.

At the Punta della Dogana there was an oldish Italian man getting really arsey about not being allowed to photograph the art, as if it was somehow his inalienable right to grab images of an artist’s work, i.e. their livelihood. Despite the fact that I almost instinctively spun this anecdote in favour of the artist’s supremacy, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this. Galleries often get extremely overprotective and paranoid about the ownership of “their” images because both for good and for bad there’s money and power/control issues involved in selling reproductions or documentation; it generally doesn’t do a living artist much financial good to have unauthorised reproductions of their work flying around all over the place, especially if they don’t particularly need the exposure or publicity.

One the other hand, I think there’s a huge cultural and artistic value in ideas and images being available for creative re-use, sampling and transformation, although Pinault’s collection is overwhelmingly of work by living, active artists and to be honest I’m not one of these WOO! FREE EVERYTHING! people. I’m more comfortable with creative cannibalisation when the artist is dead and gone, when they’ve overtly granted permission or at the very least when a decent period has elapsed and the original work may even be out of circulation, forgotten or otherwise past its sell-by date.

In this specific case though, it’s hard to imagine that some old bloke’s blurry snapshots (or anyone else’s) are doing a great deal of harm to the artist or the gallery. For what it’s worth, the gallery staff were firm but scrupulously polite, explanatory and professional. Even if they hadn’t been that way, there wasn’t really any need for the guy to feel so entitled and be such a tool about it.


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