Putting oneself in the picture: The life of a fictional art collector

In his novel «The Golden Bowl,» Henry James has one of his main characters, a wealthy art collector by the name of Adam Verver, dream of building a museum that will bring the highest knowledge and beauty to the local community. In fact, Verver had been collecting artworks of the highest quality with that purpose in mind and conceived of his «museum of museums» as an expression of gratitude toward all those fellow citizens that had helped him become prosperous. Verver is clearly an idealist, not only because of his sense of indebtedness and moral obligation – which he feels can be discharged by art – to his community but because he views art and beauty as synonymous with knowledge and truth. Something of an aesthetic missionary, he is a man of his times. His views are imbued with the still influential 19th-century ethos of art bordering on the sacred and capable of producing unique experiences of self-revelation. Even if a contemporary equivalent of Verver actually existed (notwithstanding that he is a fictional character), he would probably be something of an old-fashioned oddity. Over the passage of time, the avant-garde and other 20th-century developments have changed the course of art, how it is conceived and produced. The ethos of art has, since then, been less about metaphysics than about enfranchisement, accessibility to a broad public and freedom of expression. But even if clothed differently, the utopian spirit which is possible to trace in Verver persisted; it is eloquently captured in the views of Joseph Beuys, undoubtedly one of the greatest «art missionaries» of the 20th century, who lived to show that anything could be a work of art and that everyone was an artist. Such radical views helped pave the way for contemporary developments, the mass expansion of art and its availability to a broad public – and hence art as a commodity. The question is whether these developments carry within them the creative energy and forward-looking exhilaration so characteristic of previous periods such as the 1960s and 1970s. Where do contemporary artistic values lie and how are these captured by the role of an art collector? Such portentous issues are handled with arresting humor and unusual wit in Konstantin Kakanias’s recent book, which was recently published by Rizzoli publications: «Mrs Tependris the Contemporary Years,» subtitled «The Adventures of an Art Collector,» and with a creative foreword by Hamish Bowles, Vogue magazine’s European editor-at-large. It uses Kakanias’s brainchild, the New York Times award-winning Mrs Tependris, to implicitly raise important issues on the legacy of 20th-century progressive art. In many ways, the book could be seen as a critique of postmodernism, of art’s downgrading to a question of lifestyle, as well as a send-up of all the superficial and bombastic contemporary art crazes and of the artist’s role. A French-educated and Hollywood-based Greek artist, Kakanias narrated the patriotic feelings of the Greek-American, nouveau-riche widow (whose identity is never fixed) of a Greek tycoon in a former publication. In the current book, Mrs Tependris embarks on an adventure of self-discovery, in the course of which she discovers that art is her therapy, thus turning herself into an art collector and finally into an artist. In truth, these convictions are nothing more than the obsessions of a neurotic, consumerist character wholly subservient to the dictates of fashion and style. Her most fiery ambition in life is to be included in the list of history’s most important arbiters of taste; she craves to be a contemporary Madame Pompadour. Mrs Tependris understands art only as a mindless, ephemeral consumption of fashion trends and this is why Kakanias uses her as a metaphor to refer to the state of contemporary art and its superficial reception by the public. Kakanias raises some provocative issues, though in the end one cannot quite decide whether his book is more of a celebration of art’s diversity and freedom of expression or a regretful take on the loss of values. It is arguably this ambivalence that accounts for the book’s strength. By design, Kakanias leaves everything suspended in ambiguity. Mrs Tependris goes through some dramatic moments, at least she thinks she does, but both her inner personality and details of her life, not to mention basics such as her first name, her personal life or nationality remain unclear. But it doesn’t matter. It is not an autonomous personality that accounts for the splendor of Mrs Tependris but the easy superficiality with which she moves from life’s one extreme to the other. Having just returned from a spiritually enlightening trip to the East to her apartment in New York, she feels stifled by the old-class style of her apartment’s interior decoration and decides to auction off all of her furniture and replace it with works of contemporary art instead. She hires an assistant and begins buying works from all the established names that shaped art from the 1960s to today. John Baldessair, Maurizio Cattelan, Chris Burden, Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Catherine Opie and Morimura Yasamura are among the artists in a list that also includes her greatest icon, couturier Andre Courreges, as well as Gucci designer Tom Ford, and Helmut Lang. The climax of her self-liberation is yet to come, however, when, reminiscing on Warhol’s aphorisms (she used to be a friend of his in the 1970s), Tependris feels that she too is an artist and actually begins to change each work she has bought by incorporating an image of herself in each one of them, cast in a different role each time. Wholly removed from the high-minded, aesthetic mission of Verver, Mrs Tependris has no deeper, existential perspective on art other than her narcissistic, consumerist urges. Kakanias, however, does not make any moral judgments but lets his narrative flow easily within the pleasant world of style and fashion. The book itself flirts with both art and fashion, refusing a safe classification for either and thus proving the fluidity of contemporary culture. Kakanias is again intentionally ambiguous. Maybe this ambiguity is his way of satirizing not only the world around him, but his own role as an artist as well. Birthday Girl