A fire in a London warehouse has destroyed many of the works of contemporary art owned by advertising magnate Charles Saatchi and exhibited in the controversial 1999 show Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum. The value—that is to say, the monetary value—of the works destroyed was reportedly as much as $90,000,000.
The fire does not seem to have resulted in any national mourning in England. Indeed, there was speculation that a transgressive art critic, or even performance artist, might have sparked the fire; some even saw it as proof of divine justice. Even those who would normally recoil at the thought of burning a used pulp fiction paperback were not deeply upset: which perhaps is why certain cultural panjandrums went into overdrive to explain to the philistines why the fire was such a catastrophe.
For myself, I rather regret the fire and the losses it occasioned—not because of the artistic but because of the documentary value of what was lost. In 100 or 200 years’ time, it might have helped social historians to understand the current state of our soul.
Among the works lost was Chris Ofili’s “Virgin with Elephant Dung Attached,” which so outraged Mayor Giuliani when it hung at the Brooklyn Museum, and Tracey Emin’s famous (or infamous) work, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995,” a tent into whose interior the artist had sewn the names of everyone with whom, since birth, she had ever shared a bed.
Comparing the loss of such works to that of Holbein’s fresco of Henry VIII and his family when Whitehall Palace burnt down in 1698, Emin told the Guardian: “The tent’s a seminal thing. It was that moment and that time in my life. It’s me sitting in Waterloo sewing all the names on. It took me six months to make. I couldn’t remake that time in my life again, any more than I could remake the piece. And anyway, I haven’t slept with anyone for a year.”
The sheer egotism of this observation hardly needs pointing out. The same Guardian article reported that Emin had “sent a text message to the world at large that read like one of her banner blankets: ‘I was OK now I’m HURT. BUT NO ONE DIED and IDEAS CONTINUE. The WAR in ARAQ,’ she added, in trademark Mad Tracey from Margate spelling, ‘is WRONG x.”’
The deep and probably irredeemable trashiness of mind that these quotes reveal (unless, of course, Emin is simply a brilliantly cynical opportunist and self-publicist, in which case her talent is not for art) failed to offend the Guardian’s reporter, for whom trashiness, indeed, was the whole, valuable point of the lost works: “British art in the 1990s insisted on the here and now, never caring much about the future and perhaps destined never to exist there. In a way, this might be its best fate—to go up in a blaze of glory, never having to be exhibited in some provincial museum in 30 years’ time, as dull as most 1960s pop looks today, to embarrass and bore our children.”
It’s a strange reversal for the keepers of the sacred flame to prefer a bonfire of the vanities.