The Horse's Arse by Laura GascoigneCurators at London’s Tate Modern may be worrying about the work they want to include in their Modigliani show planned for this November.

On 16 July Italian police raided the Ducal Palace in Genoa to seize 21 paintings thought to be forgeries of paintings by the most faked artist ever, Amadeo Modigliani. The raid came after veteran Tuscan art critic Carlo Pepi alerted the carabinieri’s art fraud unit in Rome.

Given this latest scandal, art critic Laura Gascoigne’s racy novel, The Horse’s Arse, is timely. It’s an allegory – what the French call a roman a clef  –  in which well-known personalities are hidden behind invented names.

Her target is the corrupting influence of big money on the buying and selling of art and how London is at the centre of it. As everyone knows, London’s auction houses see astronomical sums of money change hands as prices are jacked up in an unholy alliance between dealers, private and public galleries.

Against this background, we meet old-fashioned painter, eccentric Pat Phelan. He’s a talented anti-hero who just wants to complete his masterpiece, the Seven Seals.  Against his better nature, however, he agrees to help out his cocaine-sniffing son, by crafting fakes of post-Impressionist masters Degas, Derain and Modigliani.

And thereby hangs a tale as Phelan is irretrievably enmeshed in an unsavoury chain of events.

There is a wealth of hilarious sobriquets:  Spritzer & Camorra (aka Neapolitan Mafia) are the architects who design a new State Gallery extension; Dirk Boegemann is a burnt-out contemporary artist who needs a boost for his career. The cast also includes Russian oligarch / collector, Orlovsky, and Nigel Vouvray-Jones, who heads up the RazzelleDeVere auction house and a cub reporter-art history student who is working on his thesis on Sheddism.

There is video-artist Tammy Tinker-Stone, art magazine editor Fay Lacey-Piggott, “FLP to her troops”, and Sir Jeremy Gaunt, “director of the State Gallery”. Gaunt is a thinly-disguised version of the real-life, former Tate Gallery director, Sir Nicholas Serota.

Gascoigne satirises the trend towards conceptual art and the way it is bigged up by pseudo-art theorists. She has a merciless way of taking the mick out of art-political jargon including projects to “build landmark galleries” and turn places into tourist destinations.

By setting up foundations and galleries, discount store owner cum art collector  “Godfrey Wise” can acquire a shining reputation, bring art to the benighted provincial masses and obtain funding from public bodies and banks – “a marriage made in heaven”.

Through a clever plot, The Horse’s Arse maps out the unhealthily close relationship between publicly-funded art institutions, auction houses and private collectors. The State Gallery gives Boegemann – whose artistic credentials are clearly dubious – an exhibition which enhances the market value of his work. It’s an art-world version of PFI – the private finance initiatives that suck finance and resources out of the National Health Service and council housing projects.

Here are the peculiar vagaries, the shady exigencies of how today’s art market really functions. And why and how it can be a deeply corrupting and even criminal place.  Why a fake Modigliani can be worth millions – until someone discovers it is a fake of course!

Gascoigne has written an entertaining page-turner with a nice twist at the end, when Phelan makes a surprisingly moving speech in the dock, championing the cause of the artist against all the odds.  Value, as Marx explained in Das Kapital, is a contradictory relation. The production and exchange of art for profit embodies this probably more than any other commodity. Thus, The Horse’s Arse is a kind of morality fable for our times.

The Horse’s Arse or The Shed of Revelation by Laura Gascoigne, is published by Clink Street.

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