Charles Saatchi: Babble
Published by Booth-Clibborn Editions, £12.99 hardback
Charles Saatchi is, of course, a major player in our cultural life: co-founder of one of the world's largest advertising agencies, (in)famous for the 1979 Conservative election campaign, and latterly even more famous as a collector and exhibitor of contemporary art. As you might expect from a book penned by an advertising man, the title is not to be trusted: it is both true and untrue. The content is certainly not babble in the sense of being meaningless or incomprehensible: it is a series of 1000-word essays on various topics ranging across art and culture, politics and economics, history and sociology.
And yet those terms are too grand. He focuses on trivia, skirts around coherent argument, and jumps from subject to subject as though suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. One essay starts with a performance artist vomiting on paintings in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and segues onto tales of art theft, via the damage and repair of Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley at the Sensation exhibition.
Another begins with a sympathetic description of the tribulations of being an air steward, then morphs through the wiliness of wild dogs using the Moscow underground, to his own Lincoln Town Car which he keeps for emergencies – except that, when the emergency comes, the battery is flat.
The book is certainly funny in places, such as on why you should walk a mile in someone else's shoes before you criticise them, and how to construct your own Shakespearean insult. But overall, the jokes fall flat for the same reason that the arguments don't convince: lack of passion.
Like a character in a Douglas Coupland novel, Saatchi seems to want to lounge at a distance and observe with a laconic smile, unable or unwilling to distinguish between the serious and the insignificant, the normal and the freak, taking nothing seriously – including himself.
He is keen to insist that he is unqualified to offer wisdom. He frequently refers to his lack of education and skills. He generously ascribes his business success to his brother and their highly paid staff, together with bluff and luck. He admits to lack of humility; failures in marriage; serious use of sleeping pills; an extremely small moral compass; and being ‘tediously pompous’.
Such self-deprecation can sound winsome, but it can also serve as a pre-emptive defence for the arch superiority with which he sweepingly condemns politicians, awarders of Hollywood Oscars, most players in the art world, and many others. From time to time he pulls the two strands together: 'I may be a disappointing person in many ways, but at least I have never fostered grand designs for social engineering, so beloved of concerned types who want to shape the world, and who mostly just mess up people's lives.'
It is difficult to be sure whether to take his opinions seriously, or whether he is striking a provocative pose, such as when he denies the dangers of passive smoking, or argues against the green agenda. His tendency to use extremes as examples undermines his ability to make generalisations. His dismissal of ‘religion’, for instance, deals with Scientology and self-harming among Hindus. I wondered if Jesus was too tough a subject for this glibness.
As you would expect from an early patron of Damien Hirst, he takes a laconic view of his own impending demise (he is over 70 now, so the finishing tape is coming into view). And yet in the light of that prospect, it is hard to see what really matters to him – other than pottering through the remaining years as painlessly as possible, lying on the couch watching sport. The world is full of quirky people and things that can be interesting and entertaining – but in the end we learn nothing from them.
Judgemental and superficial as this book at times is, it perhaps offers the opportunity for a forensic examination of what passes through the mind of many of our contemporaries. It might indeed make an interesting text to read alongside Ecclesiastes. Like The Teacher, Saatchi sees the apparent meaninglessness, unpredictability and unfairness of life: money goes to people who don’t deserve it; good or bad seem to fall randomly on people without apparent regard to justice or reason; ironies abound, such as the best-selling author on keeping fit who dies of a heart-attack while out jogging. The best you can do to make sense of the world seems to be, like the blokes in High Fidelity, to make lists: there are a lot of lists in this book.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, however, at least seems to care, and he sets his observations in the world of a Creator God, in whom we can be confident that meaning and purpose ultimately cohere. But Saatchi's conclusions – if we can use such a grand term – are the classics of post-modernism: life is unjust and meaningless, so get on and enjoy what you can of it, unhampered by too much shame or guilt, hoping for an easy passage through into the darkness. Failing that, there's always assisted suicide. A sad book.
This review was first published in Third Way, September 2013