No sooner had it been established as fact, rather than unbelievable rumour, that a Momart warehouse containing some of the best known pieces from Charles Saatchi’s collection had been burnt to the ground, than the jeering and the sneering began. It seemed as if all those with tired old axes to grind about Saatchi and Britart were suddenly allowed to come crawling out for one last crow. We all know that Saatchi and many of his artists have not exactly shunned publicity in the past, but the celebratory tone of much of the media response to this catastrophic event was depressing and weirdly retrogressive.
Whether or not Tracey Emin’s tent or the Chapman’s magnum opus “Hell”, both of which were destroyed, were to everyone’s taste, they were key pieces that epitomised a very particular moment in Britain’s cultural history. Whether or not they can, or will, be re-made, they are irreplacable. The destruction of any work of art is cause for regret, not glee. A work of art is more than the effort put into its making—although in the case of “Hell”, which took the Chapmans over two years to create, that effort was very considerable—it is about the aims, aspirations and atmosphere of the moment. It is about the spirit that accompanied its making, and that cannot be conjured up again.
Of course, there is more to life and art than the creation of relics, but the fact that I will never again gaze into “Hell”’s mini-monstrosities makes me sad. Both the Chapmans and Emin are still at the beginning of their careers with decades of art production ahead of them, but Patrick Heron is no longer with us and this makes the destruction of a large number of his paintings especially tragic. So is the news that key unique sculptures by Helen Chadwick, including those she was working on just before she died, have also been lost. There has been much discussion of why Momart saw fit to store all these works—along with pieces by Patrick Caulfield, Damien Hirst, Gillian Ayres, Dexter Dalwood, Chris Ofili, Michael Craig-Martin, Fiona Rae, Jane Simpson, Damien Hirst, to name but a few—in such a potentially hazardous location, next to garages and a paint factory; and it seems very likely that this apparent failure to fulfill its professional obligations will raise many questions about the way art is stored and insured. But whatever the fall out, and whatever Charles Saatchi does or does not gain in insurance payouts, the fact remains that a great many wonderful pieces of art no longer exist. And that is something to be mourned, not gloated over.
The writer is The Art Newspaper’s contemporary art critic.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Shame on the Schadenfreudians'