Recently, whilst informing someone of my degree, their immediate response to Art History was “so you know the value of paintings”? Perhaps rather flippantly, I insisted to them that the monetary value of art is of no concern to me, but rather the beauty and meaning. Indeed, the world of auctioneering is essential to the continuation of the art world, but I find it rather distressing that people today obsess over monetary values, as opposed to cultural values.
Ultimately, society responds to money, hype and controversy; just look how rich and successful the YBA’s have become. Last summer, Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate Modern was the most popular solo exhibition in Tate history, bringing in over half a million visitors. Did the visitors attend to contemplate how a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde resonates something profound about life and death, or simply because it is (supposedly) worth $12,000,000?
North of the border, an artist renowned for his mix of controversy and outrageous wealth has this month opened a major retrospective exhibition. Over one hundred works by self-taught Fife artist Jack Vettriano are now on display at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, spanning twenty years of his career. The artist, famous for his glamorous, heavily theatrical and erotic paintings, in now one of the most successful commercial artists in the world, and Scotland’s richest. His wealth originates not solely from great sales at auctions, but mostly from royalties generated from endless postcards, posters and merchandise embossed with his work. His most famous work, The Singing Butler (1992), one of Britain’s best-selling images, supposedly earns Vettriano several thousand pounds in royalties each year. Counter-intuitively, the more Vettriano merchandise sold around the world, the higher original works are sold for.
The subject material, style and artistic talents of Vettriano, however, have faced fierce criticism for much of his career. A former director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art famously remarked that Vettriano was “an indifferent painter”, whose fame relied on “cheap commercial reproductions”. Critics have also argued that Vettriano’s art is woefully unoriginal and that his works are irregular in quality and. in some cases, unfinished. Feminist groups have also attacked Vettriano, claiming his art objectifies women, who are often depicted in heavy makeup and stilettos, clinging to a man.
So why has this seemingly untalented artist made such a name for himself? Perhaps it is the strange, uplifting, nostalgic fantasy that Vettriano presents to us in his work that appeals to some older generations; those who wish to hearken back to times when men and women behaved and dressed in a certain defined way. Vettriano himself does not believe in monogamous romance, so the romantic illusion in his art is heavily ironic. His vision of an ideal woman is clear across his work: a slender Ava Gardner-esque brunette, complete with scarlet lips and nails; Vettriano is an outrageous eroticist, offering borderline soft-porn to a sex-obsessed world. We can’t deny it, sex sells. The artist has defended his overt eroticism, arguing that he is making a statement about human desire and the power of sex.
Vettriano is indeed a man open to sharing his fetishes with the world. His talents may be questionable, but who am I to criticise a man who has made millions from selling postcards? The Vettriano Retrospective is on display at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove from 21 September to 23 February.