Why do so many rich capitalists have a penchant for collecting anti-capitalist art? By this I don’t mean collectors who buy objects that may have an anti-capitalist message but are also items of beauty or have a resonance beyond their anti-capitalism, let alone those who buy works by left-wing artists. That is entirely understandable. What is more surprising is that there are those who collect and promote art that if shorn of its anti-capitalist message would leave a void — it is art created solely to convey an anti-capitalist message.
A visit to the Saatchi Gallery in London reveals that the Conservative-supporting advertising impresario Charles Saatchi likes works extolling the evils of capitalism and consumerism. Some years ago, Bloomberg, suppliers of financial software to the engines of hyper-capitalism, sponsored an exhibition, Protest and Survive, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, near the City, of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate agitprop.
Alex Sainsbury, scion of the supermarket dynasty and son of former Tory MP Sir Tim Sainsbury, has used some of his wealth to restore two stunning 17th-century buildings in Spitalfields which had been converted in the 18th century into luxury shops by Huguenot silk traders. They are now the home of Sainsbury’s gallery, Raven Row. Its remit is to bring neglected, often recently deceased, artists to a wider public.
Raven Row’s current show, Real Capital — Production (open until the end of November), is of works by K.P. Brehmer, a German artist who died in 1997. The initials stand for both Karl Peter and Kommunistische Partei (Communist Party).
His art is narrowly political — it consists of works which aim to make some anti-capitalist points: graphs showing the concentration of wealth, our dependence on volatile markets, falling standards of living, etc. It has no interest outside its politics. Brehmer described his work as Sichtagitation — visual agitprop.
Accompanying all this is a catalogue of mind-numbing incomprehensibility: “This was a dynamic relation that 50 years later with Brehmer — the individualised artist in capitalist and post-fascist West Germany — can be discussed as a productivist position towards artistic production, as constant progress towards a process of creating a reality that art alone cannot produce.”
Alex Sainsbury has performed a public service by restoring such fine houses and establishing as beautiful an exhibition space as Raven Row. But it still seems odd that they should be used for dated anti-capitalist propaganda — and that it should all be funded out of supermarket wealth.