Saatchi’s Showdown – art for the Reality TV generation (aka Gallery 2.0)

My friend Emma Jenkinson has a piece ‘Mentor and Mother’ in the latest Saatchi Showdown.

I had no qualms about giving her piece a 10 rating – I do genuinely like it, as I do her work in general (see and for more). This Saatchi piece is classic Emma – great visual design and use of colour, a sense of humour that some might call left-of-centre, and a seemingly endless fascination for wallpapers, tiles and other textures that seem to belong to some bygone era.

If you aren’t familiar with the Showdown, it’s billed as a giant online talent contest for artists. Anyone can submit their work, and the winner receives £1,000 and a three month showing in the Saatchi Gallery when it opens in West London in October. The Showdown site launched at the end of February and apparently had over 35 million hits within a week. Every fortnight a ‘finalist’ is chosen, then the twelve finalists compete for the top prize (the runner-up receives £750, and presumably a fair bit of publicity too).

Saatchi’s own influence on the contemporary BritArt market has obviously been profound (for anyone living under an artistic rock for the past decade, his travelling exhibition Sensation brought Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas amongst others to national and international prominence), but he certainly has as many detractors as admirers, and the Showdown is a great example of why. Firstly the title – sure, nice alliteration, but ‘showdowns’ have that connotation of confrontation that some might consider out of place in art (especially at a time when there is so much serious confrontation elsewhere on the planet). Then the very notion of artists competing against one another… art lowered to the level of a Reality TV show?

But I have to admit that as much as might want to dislike it, I can’t. It’s a very British affair – we Brits seem to like voting on anything and everything except at times when it might possibly be useful (e.g. elections), and that’s one of the reasons Reality shows with public voting do so well here (another reason is that these shows provide exactly the kind of endless mind-fodder that tabloids exist on/for, but that’s another rant).

Saatchi is quoted as saying “Showdown is a great way for artists to have their work shown to a wide audience; it’s very hard for most artists to get their work widely seen and this competition gives thousands of artists the chance to have their work seen by a global audience.” I agree with most of this – it does give a lot of artists the chance to use the revered/reviled Saatchi name in their favour. I don’t actually think it is that hard for most artists to get their work widely seen anymore, but I’ll forgive that hyperbole – as long as Emma wins.