Radicalism and Conformity: Jewish Collectors of New Art

Storeroom (Project 2) by David Breuer-Weil, oil on canvas, 200 x 400cm

I was asked to write an article on Jewish art collectors in England. For a few seconds I felt tempted to reel off a list of names of the most prominent art collectors, investors, Russian oligarchs and celebrity bidders in the main auctions of the major salerooms. But such articles are legion and widely available in Hello or the opening pages of the Evening Standard magazine. I wanted to avoid all the spin and promotion too often associated with the world of contemporary art and instead penetrate a little deeper to discuss why people collect art and why Jews appear to have been disproportionately drawn to it. It has often been noted that Jews are among the most dominant collectors of art and antiques in the world today. Jacques Barzun wrote of nineteenth- century art becoming ‘the gateway to the realm of spirit for all those over whom the old religions have lost their hold’.Collecting is a way to amass portable assets, something that has always been attractive to Jews. I believe that collecting can, as an activity, represent diametrically opposing tendencies. Among these is the desire to belong, on the one hand, and the need to be radical — to embrace one’s outsider status — on the other. The question is whether it is nobler to be different or to conform. This age-old question defines Jewishness and is played out in six figure sums in the field of art collecting.
In the decades after Emancipation in nineteenth-century Europe, Jews were attracted to the art scene in different ways. Some of the wealthy went to the Parisian salons and bought Bougereaus, Makarts and other artists in fashion. Others decorated their homes with art by the lesser names of the salon. But the Jewish patrons and collectors of that period who helped shape the art revolution from 1870–1955 were more interested in what was going on outside the bright lights of the salon. They frequented the alternative exhibitions, like the un-juried Salons des Independents or break-away, ‘secessionist’ displays in the German-speaking world to purchase works that others ignored, derided or found ugly and unacceptable. The great early patrons of Picasso and Matisse, Leo and Gertrude Stein, bought Matisse’s now seminal ‘Fauve’ portrait of a woman (now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), enthralled by what they considered to be a ‘hideous daub’, while steadily acquiring many of Picasso’s most difficult early works including that modern Mona Lisa, the ‘Portrait of Gertrude Stein’.
Jews were among the first to have the courage to embrace the spiritual and political revolutionary aspects of much of the great pre-war German and Austrian art (which is why several of the most prominent Holocaust restitution cases revolve around works by Klimt, Schiele and Kirchner). And in most cases the patrons of this kind of work considered it to be as sacred a mission as the artists themselves. Jewish dealers such as Herwarth Walden were passionate adherents of the values of the art they encouraged, from Kandinsky to early Chagall and Kirchner.
It is true that what is Bohemian and radical one year becomes mainstream the next. Picasso, Matisse and Chagall became the darlings of the aristocracy in later years. But the crucial difference between then and now is that for the genuine avant-garde artists and patrons alike, no conformist activity was ever built into their project from the outset. Although Picasso owned massive houses in later years he still lived like a gypsy in them, and he remained an armchair communist to his dying day. Virtually every significant artist of the pre-war and immediately post-war period was some form of socialist or idealist. Wealth and popularity were a bonus. But these artists feared it could damage the integrity of their art. The great post-war avant-garde painters such as Pollock, Newmann and Rothko were all idealists who believed in the spiritual possibilities of art; for them money was a necessary nuisance. Indeed it seems clear that both Pollock and Rothko were damaged by their celebrity: Pollock died in a drink-induced car crash and Rothko took his own life. For both men paramount was the freedom to express their inner life. The unconscious was everything, their belief in the discoveries of Freud and Jung a quasi-religion. Art was a sacred duty. They were latter-day Van Goghs. The idea of painting to feed a market was anathema to them.
The earlier avant-garde was deadly serious precisely because it represented a biting critique of mainstream culture. It was what Lionel Trilling described in Sincerity and Authenticity as ‘serious art, by which we mean such art as stands, overtly or by implication, in an adversary relationship to the dominant culture’. This is perhaps why the avant-garde attracted so many Jewish collectors in its authentic phase.
With the passing of the generation of the great Abstract Expressionists the art world was shaken up like never before. The new thing was Pop Art. Pop Art celebrated the materialistic mass consumerism of America. It was all about shallow appearances, products, celebrities, stars, and, within a few years when the works started to sell well, all about money. This was the crucial break. Whereas earlier avant-garde art was typically critical of bourgeois culture, Warhol was the king of the banal world of the market place. In his work and in his statements he denied the importance of artistic or spiritual depth; as he famously said, his art was ‘all on the surface’.
Warhol called himself a business artist and stated that ‘good business is the best art’. Despite his graphic brilliance, it is in this aspect of his work that he has proven to be by far the most influential artist of the late twentieth-century. Since Warhol, the brand has mattered more than anything else. Rather than relish the outsider status of his artistic forebears, he actually started a fashionable celebrity magazine.
This art of high capitalism, stripped bare of idealism or spirituality, elicited a new breed of collector: the collector-investor. Many began to see the art world as an extension of the business world rather than as a platform for experimentation and alternative choices. Warhol famously stated that art is ‘what you can get away with’, encouraging short cuts in the making of art, less emphasis on formal training in art schools, and a widespread belief that the making of art is an easy, often throwaway undertaking. This drift away from the traditional skills of art-making cannot, of course, be attributed to Warhol alone, but if a machine can produce among the most successful art of its time, why struggle with the skills of painting and drawing? The result, over the coming generations, was the gradual shift away from the idea of painting as a private activity that explored the unconscious and personal to something less personal and more product-driven. As before Jewish dealers and collectors were at the forefront of supporting this kind of art: from the Mugrabis (a holding numbering as many as eight hundred Warhols), to the support of Murakami by the Lindemanns in America, to Eli Broad in Los Angeles (a massive collector of Warhol, Koons and Hirst) and many others. Without the support of Jewish collectors and dealers the market for this kind of mass-produced consumer art would be considerably weakened.
I would argue that support for this kind of art is fuelled by completely different objectives which reflect the different position that Jews have enjoyed since World War II, both in America and England, the main centres of the collecting world. Part of the change is due to the war itself, which devastated the educated, often profoundly expert Jewish collecting classes of Western and Central Europe, who were among the first to buy German and Austrian Expressionist works (interestingly Ronald Lauder has sought to recreate this vanished world in both the style and contents of his remarkable Neue Galerie in Vienna which houses his collection of works by Klimt, Schiele and their contemporaries). The milieu that valued cultural expression in this way was annihilated by the war. Some of the dealers regrouped in New York afterwards, but the cultural world of pre-war Paris and Berlin never recovered. The centre of the art world moved from Europe to New York.
For approximately ten years (1945–1955) the prominent artists and dealers in New York publicly maintained the values of their European predecessors, in part encouraged by the presence of many important émigré painters such as Beckmann, Chagall, Ernst and many others. But as we have seen, by the 1950s the quintessential American art form, Pop Art, prevailed, corresponding with the massive rise in the advertising industry and the gradual dominance of high capitalism over ideologically-powered activities. Whereas Jewish collectors and dealers were drawn to the idealistic, radical, socially-motivated outsider art of the period 1870–1955, the relative security and comfort of Jewish life in America may have encouraged more mainstream tastes. Furthermore, it left Jews feeling no identification with outsiders or radical elements and certainly no need to employ art as an ongoing critique of modern society. The shortcomings of much current mainstream art are increasingly noted by leading critics such as Robert Hughes, Julian Stallabrass, Anthony Julius, Donald Kuspit and others, but their voices are generally ignored by the art world. Kuspit argues that a great deal of fashionable art, plagued by over-commercialisation and advertising, has a tendency to be mass-produced and banal and should be termed ‘post-art’. He has dubbed the new generation of mostly little-known artists ‘The New Old Masters’. In addition, he has noted that while it is a commonly held view among modern dealers and collectors that everything significant has already been discovered, they have not even attempted to search out significant pictorial talents; the current collectors are largely unaware of the art being made in the studios away from the bright lights. So far, few prominent collectors have identified the new outsider art as a distinct genre. But this could well become a new development as the financial world begins to lose its appearance of invincibility, and the blatant materialism of recent years gives way to greater introspection. The sheer number of critics and artists who are now reacting against the system could be termed a silent revolution.
Exceptional collectors in the post-war period include Charles Saatchi who has bought art in such quantities over the years that several masters have emerged from his stable. Anita Zabludowicz does not collect in order to resell and seems willing to take genuine aesthetic risks. But in these and other cases their level of influence is too often based on wealth rather than expertise, and the impact on new directions can be as negative as they are positive, especially when the art selected for inclusion in prominent exhibitions is lacking in true power or quality, as is often the case.
If Jewish collectors in the post-war years were not such connoisseurs as their pre-war precursors, the Jewish painters of this period are beginning to look increasingly exceptional compared to much of the more temporal art produced in the same period. While the art world typically eschewed traditional image making in the form of depictive or symbolic paintings, Jews came to be among the greatest practitioners in this area, despite the constant changes in fashion, for example, Freud, Arikha, Kossoff, Auerbach and Kitaj. This suggests that the truly meaningful influence of Jews in the post-war period may well be as artists rather than as collectors of new art, especially considering the influence and legacy of the abstract but intensely spiritually-driven artists Rothko and Newman as well. For both artists, Jewish philosophy and religion were major inspirations, as much as in the more anecdotal art of Kitaj. Apart from these great Jewish abstract painters, some of the finest figurative painters today (many trained by Hirschberg) come out of Israel. In England, School of London painters and some of the artists of my generation now seek to produce art of real depth and intensity. Is it possible that what was once traditional has now come full circle? Is it more radical to paint a picture than to put another ready-made on a plinth? For most of the last part of the twentieth-century such artists were respected but definitely considered old fashioned. There is evidence now that things have changed and that certain new collectors are more interested in depth than breadth. It is my view now that genuine innovation is to be found by digging deeper, not by running longer to find the latest novelty. The recent success of relatively traditional painters such as Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans certainly suggests that the art world  has a greater interest in traditional genres and serious subject matter, while it is also true that it is easier to collect and display a canvas than an installation or video.
At a time of global terrorism and economic meltdown, banal art may no longer express the age. The brilliance and panache of Warhol, Koons, Murakami and Hirst should not be denied, but it is now hard to be satisfied with art that is not serious. We have lost what is surely the most valuable thing about art: its ability to transcend business, its making sense of pain and suffering, its ability to record the passing of time and generations, in short its humanity. And a work of art is most human when it is most personal.
The global business had a stock exchange in the form of high-profile auctions that could determine the financial value of the products quite accurately and regularly (in the past collectors would hold their art for at least a generation; now two years seems like a long time). Quite naturally collectors became excited that something they had bought recently had gone up in value exponentially, and in recent years this has become typical rather than atypical. Art is more often bought for investment than for love, and there are a lot of investors, which means a demand for more works by each artist, more art fairs, more people buying with their ears and not their eyes. As the brand names get bigger, the artists behind them need to produce more work, usually with the help of teams of assistants.
Now, the vast majority of artists have virtually no patronage while the stars at the top are over-patronised, often to the detriment of their output. This is partly a product of globalization. Whereas in the past local artists would have supplied art for local collectors (giving birth to different national schools of art, each with its own indigenous flavour), now collectors from all over the world want to buy into the same products created by the officially approved artists. Apart from impoverishing local talent and the very idea of cultural global differences, this tends to create a blander, less partisan type of art.  There was great excitement about the raw, politically and emotionally charged new art from China and Korea. But the whole scene rapidly degenerated into a replay of the Western contemporary art game: buy cheap, promote and sell off at auction. Few artists get the chance to develop once the brand product has been defined and marketed. And missing from much of the recent Chinese art is a sense that this is indigenous art, rather than a Chinese version of Western artistic stereotypes.
I know several collectors who buy works that they have never seen. Collectors often want to know only the brand and the size of a painting, which will be sold as soon as the price is right. As Donald Kuspit put it: ‘The void left by the absence of faith in art is filled by the presence of money.’
In the art world you can become a superstar if two or three wealthy collectors buy your work publicly, even if it means nothing to critics, academics or the public. This makes the art world feudal rather than democratic. A new moneyed collector who started collecting a year ago is a thousand times more influential in the art world than a seasoned, sixty-year-old expert art historian with dozens of respected books on the subject to his name or, for that matter, the opinion of any leading senior artist.
While private collectors were once the very tool that allowed alternative artists to continue working, now they often represent the new academy, an academy even more opaque in its workings than the very salons against which the old European avant-garde railed.     I do not think that you can turn the clock back. There are many interesting and relevant qualities in much recent mainstream art, even if true masterpieces are in short supply. But the art world as a system, because it often prioritises investment, power and decoration above profundity and social function, has stripped modern art of its meaning within culture as a whole. This is reflected in the fact that for every article on the aesthetic or spiritual merits of a new exhibition, there may be twenty that analyse the current values at auction. Art needs to re-emerge as a spiritual and psychological force rather than as a financial instrument.
The early Jewish collectors who bought Van Gogh, Matisse, Munch or Picasso saw something spiritually significant in these works. They felt (and still feel) intense and prophetic. More importantly they achieved what Judaism itself has always set out to achieve:they elevated the material matter of paint into something higher, transforming the physical into something timeless. Genuinely avant-garde art usually has this quality of uncertainty, of being ill at ease with the world as it is handed to us, of not accepting easy solutions. Van Gogh, the greatest of all the artist-prophets (and an artist especially championed by Jewish gallerists and experts from 1900 onwards such as Paul Cassirer), literally turned each brush stroke into a note of prayer celebrating the beauty of nature.

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David Breuer-Weil was a director of Sotheby’s for several years before leaving the commercial art world to concentrate on his work as an artist. With his series of ground-breaking exhibitions of monumental paintings The Projects he has emerged as one of Britain’s most powerful and innovative contemporary painters. He lives and works in London with studios in Willesden and Hampstead.

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1 Comment
  1. Aliza says

    Could you please list the name of the artist of the painting at the top of your article? Thanks so much.

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