elton john david lachapelle
David LaChapelle, Elton John: Egg On His Face, New York, 1999 © David LaChapelle

Up in frames: Are celebrity art collectors actually good for culture?

15 May 2024 | Updated on: 14 May 2024 |By Rob Crossan

As Elton John, Swiss Beatz and Alicia Keys throw open the doors to their private art collections, we take a deep dive into what these shows say about the A-list’s artistic taste

There were two questions that performed a pincer manoeuvre on my brain as I gazed upon swathes of images of the photography collection of Sir Elton John and David Furnish, which have just gone on display at the V&A Museum in a new exhibition called Fragile Beauty. The first was axiomatic in essence: why do celebrity art collectors always seem to reach for the shiniest, most recognisable, low-hanging fruit? The second, perhaps no less easy to answer in retrospect, was, why must so much of the collectors themselves be present in these showcases of their private assemblage?

Fragile Beauty displays around 300 of the couple’s apparently 7,000-strong body of images, including prints from 1950 to the present day by 140 photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Zanele Muholi, Ai Weiwei, Nan Goldin, and Carrie Mae Weems.

Many are extraordinary; none more so than Simply Fragile by Tyler Mitchell. Best known for his shot of a pregnant Beyonce that appeared on the cover of Vogue in 2018 (the first time a cover shoot for the magazine had ever been created by an African-American photographer), the image shows a young man reclining on some grass with purple flowers just behind his back. Gazing, cross-eyed, at a bug that sits on his nose, the picture exudes a miasma of contemplative quietude. Yet, simultaneously, there is the sense that this moment is fleeting, fragmentary and vulnerable; mere seconds or frames away from being interrupted by the bellicosity of the manmade world. How different in scope, tone and vision from the almost instantly tiresome image of Elton John with two fried eggs covering his eyes, taken by David LaChapelle in 1999.

simply fragile by tyler mitchell
Tyler Mitchell, Simply Fragile, 2022 © Tyler Mitchell. Courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps intended to show that Elton is a man prepared to sacrifice seriousness for image (as if that wasn’t already apparent), the photograph shoots for startling levity but, in its Martin Parr-esque primary colours and over-exposure, the end result appears too forced. A joke one fears might result in penurious consequences if we don’t laugh loudly enough.

The inclusion of this image made me wonder just how benevolent this show (with its eye-watering £20 entrance fee), along with the slew of other celeb-owned art shows of recent years, really is when it comes to encouraging the work of artists who aren’t, already, in the same milieu of the ultra-rich celebrities who buy their work.

Also showing at the moment, in New York’s Brooklyn Museum, is Giants, a display of the private collection belonging to Alicia Keys and her husband Swiss Beatz.

The show includes work by African-American artists such as the late, still criminally under-rated, Ernie Barnes (whose lithe and fluid neo-mannerist depictions of Black Americans is best represented in his work Sugar Shack, used as the cover art on Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You), the Haitian artist Manuel Mathieu, and the New York portraitist Kehinde Wiley.

All laudable, if slightly unadventurous, enough. Yet Giants has attracted mild scorn for also including Alicia Key’s piano as one of the exhibits. The soundtrack played in the gallery, meanwhile, is a mix curated by her husband (real name Kasseem Dean).

As if that weren’t self-validating enough, there’s also a huge photograph of the couple on display, showing them posing with a BMX. There’s also a collection of Dean’s actual bikes of the same make. To display such juvenile ephemera in the same exhibition that also contains Gordon Park’s 1970 photograph of Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver says much about the messianic sense of self-importance these art collectors are so keen to impose on the visitor.

How sincere and ‘pure’ a millionaire public figure’s love of art is arguable, but unanswerable and, frankly, beside the point. If a pop star’s ‘appreciation’ of paintings, photography and sculpture is confined purely by its market re-sale value then that doesn’t make celebrities from the musical sphere any different from the few individuals in any other realm of rarefied society who can afford to purchase the most valuable pieces by the biggest names.

Yet, there is a gaping opportunity being left untouched in the kind of exhibitions typical of those currently being held by Elton and Alicia. These shows may contain wonderful paintings and photographs but there are few surprises and new discoveries. If some of the works on display are not instantly familiar to us, the names of most of the people who created them almost certainly will be.

There is a vacuum of imagination here which is at odds with the creative credentials of these pop potentates.

When it comes to championing nascent musical talent, stars at the top of the game seem to feel a genuine thrill at pushing hitherto unknown neophytes into the spotlight. The careers of Charlie Puth and Morgan were given intense propulsion by Elton’s frequent namechecking of their debut singles, which resulted in collaborations on John’s Lockdown Sessions album.

Yet, when it comes to art, it seems the chieftains of the music industry like to play it safe. Critically laudable as it might be to showcase photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and William Eggleston, the musical equivalent of celebrating such established talent would be for John to offer tutelage to Madonna or Bob Dylan.

Look through the auction house sales of recent years and the same old venerated names appear. In 2013 Beyonce and Jay-Z purchased Jean-Michele Basquiat’s Mecca, his 1982 orange, white and black acrylic and oil piece, featuring the Empire State Building under a trademark Basquiat crown. It cost them just over £3.5 million.

Madonna is the owner of Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait With Monkey and Pablo Picasso’s Buste De Femme à La Frange. While David and Victoria Beckham have been snapping up myriad Brit-Art pieces for years, including works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman, and, inevitably, Banksy. You can almost hear the money bristling in wads near the light and temperature-controlled vaults that are home to these works, now belonging to the showbiz one per centers.

Yet, there are a few attempts to catch rising stars by the A-list art collectors. It was a manager called Jeff Robinson who found a 14-year-old Alicia Keys performing in venues in the Bronx and set up a showcase for record label executives. How exciting it would be if Keys and Swiss Beatz ditched the self-portraits and BMX’s and dedicated some of the Giants show space to a teenage artist.

As is so often the case, the exception to all this predictability is the late David Bowie. Sold for a total of £32 million at Sotheby’s after his death in 2016, Bowie’s 350-piece art collection did, admittedly, contain works by familiar names such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marcel Duchamp and Henry Moore. Yet, amid these big hitters, buyers could also purchase Peter Lanyon’s Witness.

Bought by Bowie in 1994, Lanyon’s work was all but forgotten in the decades between his death in a gliding accident at the age of just 46 in 1964 and a retrospective held at the St. Ives satellite of the Tate five decades later. A London-born abstract expressionist, Lanyon’s Witness is a dark and vast work, domineering and defiant in its dragged, sweeping flows of black and grey. Painted in the far west of Cornwall, it’s a piece that exerts both a frenzied anguish and a rational deference to the natural forces of both drift, death and gravity.

Although purchased too late for Lanyon himself to appreciate his famous buyer, Bowie can at least be credited with not being content to spend his fortune solely on the more obvious art pieces available to a wallet of his size. Typically for the Thin White Duke, we are still to catch up with his preferences in both art and sound. To this day, Peter Lanyon is still a name barely known outside university art faculties.

Perhaps, other musicians and actors might one day be tempted to look beyond the most highly-priced pieces of contemporary art made by those who have long since left the garrets of the starving artist? If Elton is happy to be photographed by Chappelle in the pose we can view at his V&A show, then surely purchasing and displaying the work of a few currently unknown artists wouldn’t leave him with any more egg on his face?

Fragile Beauty opens at the V&A on 15 May 2024, visit vam.ac.uk

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