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Richard Wright, No Title, 2009

Ephemeral Art And The Cult Of Celebrity

With Tuner Prize-winner Richard Wright shunning the art market with his ephemeral work, we bring you a heated debate on the subject of transient art

With ephemeral art hitting the headlines because of Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright's bold anti-art market statement, we bring you a debate from Crunch 09: The Art Festival at Hay, an event that is something of an art world anomaly. Where else could artists like Richard Wentworth share a platform with maverick author Julian Spalding – a man who over the course of the weekend branded Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Joseph Beuys “worse than junk" – and stalwart art critic and BBC personality Godfrey Barker learn how to deface public property with graffiti artist Felix Braun?
For those that missed out on last month's art extravaganza, this edited version of the Ephemeral Art And The Cult of Celebrity debate, in which Saatchi Gallery curator Patricia Ellis was joined by film-maker Ben Lewis and legendary art commentators Anthony Haden-Guest and Godfrey Barker should prove enlightening...

Richard Noble: Is there such a thing as a cult of celebrity in the contemporary art world and does this somehow compromise the aesthetic and ethical integrity of contemporary art?

Patricia Ellis: I think Britain’s unique when it comes to art and celebrity. I can’t think of any other country where contemporary art in the media has such a high profile. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are often described as famous, but for me, Michael Jackson is famous, Nicole Kidman is famous. I feel quite confident that Damien Hirst could walk down the meat aisle in Tesco without getting mobbed.
They are recognisable, however, and that is interesting. In Britain, any butcher or cabbie can name a living British artist. This isn’t the case elsewhere. This is a good initial starting point for a public education programme.
And artists are using this celebrity in a really intelligent way. Damien Hirst uses the media as a medium. It’s like a sculpting tool for him. It’s become an integral part of his practice.

Anthony Haden-Guest: The question was: is there a cult of celebrity in the art world? There’s a cult of celebrity in the world, period. It’s natural that the artists would deal with it. Bad artists deal with it badly. Good artists deal with it well. Some get destroyed by it. Arguably Dali was destroyed by his own celebrity, by becoming a persona.
Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson With Bubbles is a kind of investigation of celebrity, the power of celebrity, the force of celebrity. I think Richard Prince has been one of the most consistent artists in his treatment of celebrity. He’s very interested in media culture.
Francesco Vezzoli is another example. He first came to international recognition with his film Trailer for Gore Vidal’s Caligula in which he cast a lot of his famous friends, including Courtney Love. His new piece premiered recently in Los Angeles and featured the Boshoi ballet and Lady Gaga. Vezzoli uses celebrity, it’s what his work is mostly about, but he’s not like an Andy Warhol – he doesn’t adore celebrity. How can one live in this world and not be interested in this culture? Not all artists are, but many investigate it and God bless them, someone’s got to.
Godfrey Barker: The personality cult has been around for a long time. The real question here is whether the personality of the artist is going to last longer in the 21st century than the artworks they leave behind them?Ben Lewis: One of the really interesting things about our culture is that we think celebrity is a kind of value. If someone’s famous, they’re good, particularly if they’re an artist. That’s a very solipsistic aspect of the art world - if an artist has reached a wide audience, they’re marvellous because art never reaches a wide audience, so any artist who does has done a fantastic job and we should really admire them, and not criticise them because they’ve achieved this wonderful goal of celebrity.
Celebrity is a death sentence. When you start making art about your own celebrity, it very quickly becomes art about the vacuousness of your world. We shouldn’t applaud artists who embrace celebrity; we should look on them with horror and disgust. Tate’s Pop Life exhibition should have been called Pop Death, because it’s a collection of all of the worst art that’s been made over the last ten years.

GB: Britain is the international capital of celebrity artists. We may not have that many but we’ve got more than anyone else has!
AHG: Well this is partly because of Charles Saatchi. Art has become a major event; it’s sucked in the energy from many other areas of culture.
PE: These artists are almost like cultural ambassadors. I disagree with Ben in that all of the artists whom we consider ‘celebrities’ are first and foremost known for their artwork. It’s not like they just got lucky and wound up on TV or in the Saatchi Gallery, or hiring Jay Jopling as their gallerist. They earned their stripes – they have degrees, they’re there because they’re very good at their job.
BL: That’s farcical! They’re not there because they’re doing their job; they’re there because rich collectors bought their artwork and turned it into a big media story!
PE: Collectors are not stupid people. They don’t buy artwork for...
BL: They’re morons, have you ever met one?! Anyone who thinks collectors are intelligent should read Charles Saatchi’s autobiography. That’ll finish anybody off.
AHG: There was an interesting story in Ben’s magazine about Jay Jopling, way back when the YBAs were kicking off. Jay took a bag of crisps into a gallery and either The Sun or The Mirror published a front page story entitled ‘is this the most expensive bag of chips in the world?’
GB: Art seems to generate the personality cult much more because sales depend on the personality cult.
PE: I very strongly disagree with that. The artists who become celebrities actually use their celebrity because it’s useful to their practice and to their work. People like Tracey Emin, her work is very expensive but...
GB: Useful in what way?
PE: Useful in that Tracey Emin’s work is very autobiographical, so whenever she goes on TV she’s teaching you something about her personality, giving you something of herself. It validates the objects that she makes because it’s supporting the mythology around her work. It’s very useful to her as a tool, in terms of setting up the context in which we understand her work. The critical context of somebody’s work does actually support their sales, and better work tends to sell for more. We all know artists aren’t artists if they don’t sell anything.
BL: Better work sells for more?!
PE: What I’m saying is, it helps us establish the contextual understanding of her work, which in its own terms, does help incentivise her sales, or give her some kind of validation.
GB: I asked Tracey last year, 'Have you ever been happy?' She replied, 'Not until the money came in.'