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Last Updated: Monday, 31 May, 2004, 20:35 GMT 21:35 UK
Warehouse Fire
Momart fire
Work by controversial artists, including Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst, was destroyed in a fire at an East London warehouse used by the storage company Momart.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

Michael, horror in the art world from a lot of people, but sarcasm and laughter in some newspapers. How significant a loss is this art?

The significance shouldn't be exaggerated. The general press reaction tended to exaggerate it either way. Those newspapers which have had a love affair with Brit art treated this as though it were a cause for tremendous mourning. Those newspapers, mainly the tabloids, which regarded this as a massive con, saw this as an opportunity to blow a raspberry over the grave. I think that in a way this act came almost poetically at the end of a particular period. We all acknowledged, and indeed we pointed it out on this programme, that Brit art as a phase has almost come to an end. The individuals associated with it in almost all cases have exhausted the energy and innovation which they brought to modern Brit art. The other thing that I would say, which means I am a little less grief stricken than others, is that much of the conceptual work is not the sort of work which, once it's gone, we have lost, because in a sense it was the idea rather than its realisation that helped influence our aesthetic world. We are now in a position where someone like Damien Hirst essentially gets technicians to implement his idea. The fact we have lost one manifestation of it doesn't matter so much.

The point that because of the way the art is done, the idea being more important than the craft, the craft done by others, the loss matters less - is that a valid argument?

It's a very curious argument. I couldn't care less what happened to the dot paintings, but on the other hand the loss of Hell by Jake and Dinos Chapman is a huge loss, and I thought it was amazing in a way, but I know them so I wasn't surprised - they said, "Oh, it's just art. We will do some more." That's much more a woman's attitude.

To their credit they had always said that art was disposable and at least publicly stuck to that view?

Yes but it raises all those questions because now we are talking value. What was the value of those pieces? In fact they couldn't and shouldn't be replaced. There should be no attempt to replace them. The insurers have to give Saatchi and Shirley Conran and the others whose property has been destroyed money to buy some more art, which sounds like a good idea, except that in fact the insurance of art work is one of the reasons why it got locked up in the first place, because it's too dangerous to leave it lying around. At least that's the argument. So whenever you want to put on a travelling show in the provinces, in come the insurers with massive premiums that they want you to pay, knowing perfectly well that nothing will happen to the pictures. Right up to now, it's been money for old rope insuring paintings. Now all of a sudden it's just come full circle and they are going to be trying to offload on to Momart saying that they didn't take the right precautions. So we are going to find an interesting argument now about the real value of art because it was never worth that kind of money to the people who made it. Now we are going to have to unpick the whole business.

Tim, it's been a curious week. I can't ever remember a case where a serious blaze which has threatened livelihoods has led to jokes and articles in newspapers. It's strange, isn't it?

It's not surprising. The level of hatred that elements of the tabloid press have for modern art generally, it's probably the most predictable thing in the world in many ways. Having said that, I mean I am a great fan of Brit art, but I do sort of rather take their point in a way. In the sense that in a movement that's made so much of disposability - I greatly admire the Chapmans for making what was really the only possible response for their art anyway. I think it probably applies toż I mean Tracey Emin called it a great national cultural tragedy, which I think is laying it on a little bit too thick. It's a shame, certainly for the artists themselves, and Patrick Heron's family losing 50 paintings is actually terrible.

That's the real tragedy. But it is so complicated because, had this fire not happened and had the Chapmans announced, "We are going to burn Hell," everyone would say, "What a fantastic idea."

It's within the whole spirit of the whole thing that thing burning down. It's sad but it's also kind of appropriate. It will add in a strange way to the gravitas of that art somehow because it will reduce the stock and the prices will go up.

It's a very pop culture thing to die young and then be made more famous by it.

Fire a disaster for Britart icons
26 May 04 |  Entertainment

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