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Stuck Inn I



I undertook an expedition to see the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition of Kylie Minogue’s stage costumes as result of an escalating series of events. It started with a phone call one Sunday evening from The Times for a quote on the Kylie show. I pronounced that “celebrity culture” was eroding “what used to be independent academic rigour”, although I was thinking more in general terms than this specific show, so I lobbed on at the end, “That said, I rather like Kylie Minogue so I may be tempted to go along,” although I didn’t have any intention of doing so at that point. On the strength of my prominence as a pundit in the last paragraph on page 22, I found myself seated two days later on a sofa next to Dermot Murnaghan and Kate Silverton of BBC TV Breakfast News, discussing the thorny question of whether Kylie’s show was or wasn’t art. The main reason I found it thorny was because I wasn’t aware anyone was claiming it was art in the first place.

Charles Thomson, Kate Mulvey, Dermot Murnaghan, Kate Silverton, BBC TV Breakfast News

The V&A was founded in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures with an emphasis, not on exhibiting art (which was the province of the National Gallery), but on raising standards of designers and industry. For this reason it features permanent galleries of costumes to show how society preened itself down the centuries and has previously mounted such diverse shows as Vivienne Westwood, Versace, Art Deco and Che Guevara (his style in berets nicely offsetting Kylie’s in gold lamé hotpants), so the Kylie show seemed quite in keeping to me and I said so. I presented a different line of attack, which I had discussed with my old mucker, Billy Childish, the previous evening. We agreed that everyone should be very thankful that the Kylie show had not been staged in Sir Nicholas Serota’s private gallery, the Tate, where curators, mindful of their career prospects, would have rammed it down everyone’s throat as art. This is because anything that is exhibited in the Tate is art, and we can tell it’s art because it’s exhibited in the Tate. As Waldemar Janusczcak put it in The Sunday Times, writing on Carsten Holler’s stainless steel slides at Tate Modern: “Yes, he could have erected his slide in Alton Towers, but it wouldn’t have been art there. It would have been a slide.” The logic is irrefutable.

Not worn by Che Guevara

We know there is a dumbing down and has been for some time, because otherwise it wouldn’t be talked about so frequently. There are very few column inches devoted to the worry that trees are slowly transmogrifying into lumps of cheese, because there is no evidence that it is occurring, so it never enters anyone’s head to worry about it. In the museum world the Tate has, unfortunately, blazed a trail. It is particularly vulnerable to criticism and always in danger of embarassing any government funding it, as it contains so much worthless junk. This, plus the ambitious cost of creating Tate Modern, means it is more sensitive than other more dignified and less questionable establishments to the pressure of justifying its existence through weight of numbers. There was a lucky break, because Tate Modern’s large chimney made it an immensely popular venue for tourists, family outings and blind dates. Nevertheless, Serota insightfully and honestly noted in his 2000 Dimbleby Lecture that visitors “may enjoy the social experience of visiting a museum, taking in the view, an espresso or glass of wine… but remain deeply suspicious of the contents.”

The simple solution is to distract from the suspicious contents and put on a spectacle which doesn’t have any content, Ólafur Elíasson’s The Weather Project being one triumph in this respect and Holler’s playground being an even bigger one with 600,000 visitors to date. Department of Media, Culture and Sport statisticians compile the corresponding tables of figures, and the Culture Minister (inevitably more concerned with the second than the first part of his title) beams, as the government successfully delivers art to the masses. Serota is content with this sleight-of-hand because he is still living up to his principles — or driven by his neurosis, depending on how you see it – of exhibiting new art, difficult art, challenging art, anti-art, crap art or nothing to do with art whatsoever (take your pick on the sliding scale). The essential quality of such art is that it has to be something which most of the populace don’t think is art. The possibility that they don’t think it’s art, because it actually isn’t art is one that Serota does not appear to have contemplated. Even the ludicrous doctrine of Duchamp and Beuys that it’s art because an artist says so has been discarded as a needless nicety, and now it’s art because it’s in an art gallery — obviously what the curators really wanted all along.

The desired result of ersatz culture and vast attendance could be happily achieved with any popularist non-art activity, as, for example, installing a luxury indoor heated swimming pool in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, or staging a cup final there, which would prove beyond doubt the Tate’s triumph to the Ersatz Culture Minister with queues stretching all the way to the Houses of Parliament. The gallery is popular, not because it is promoting art, but because is isn’t, and, ironically, the most horrendous anathema of all to Serota and his coven of curators, patrons, trustees and pampered artists would be to exhibit popular art, such as Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook, which would undoubtedly draw as many people as, if not more than, 80 foot tubular joy rides. Dumbing down is only acceptable within strictly defined parameters that still allow a national gallery director to be photographed self-effacingly in parties at the White Cube or the Venice Biennale with Jay, Tracey and Dinos. It doesn’t matter if people like something for reasons which are nothing to do with art, as long as that thing is officially categorised as art, but it would be unforgivable if they liked something as art and thought of it as art, when it is strictly excluded from the official canon of art. They fact that they are paying for all this is a minor inconvenience, which can be ignored, as they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The effect of the most unpopular museum being popular creates pressure on other museums to achieve equal success. The government is at pains to point out that there is no implied correlation between audience figures and funding, but, to misquote a misquote by Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that wouldn’t they? Finance is the government’s big stick. The only way to achieve and maintain higher visitor numbers is by dumbing down to theme park culture, because that is what many more people find much more compelling than museums’ established and invaluable core activities. Unlike the government, I don’t see absence of mass attendance as a problem. Most people aren’t interested in joining the army either, but we spend over £30 billion pounds a year on the few people who are (around 200,000 in the UK regular forces) in order to safeguard Surbiton. This expensive minority has an effect that benefits us all, invisibly most of the time — because we don’t tend to notice that we haven’t been invaded recently by territorially ambitious and genocidal despots. Some minorities are worth subsidising and one of them consists of people who are prepared to study, maintain, and develop our cultural heritage. This too has a mostly uncredited and invisible effect that permeates society. As the Sioux put it: “a people without history is like wind on the buffalo grass.”


Museums like the V&A that were doing very nicely, thank you, now find that the stakes have been upped and they must compete on the inimicable terms dictated by the Tate. This is complicated by the fact that there is also a backlash against the way the Tate achieves its “success”. The Kylie show fell victim to this and was enveloped in the same cynicism that greets Sir Nicholas’s tactics, because the Tate’s prominence has made it an identifier for other museums. Commentators failed to mark any signal distinction between a museum of modern art and a museum of arts and crafts, again something the Tate has to take its share of the blame for by eroding any such distinction in order to justify the commonplace as an achievement of creative genius, although admittedly the problem is more widespread than just the Tate. The V&A is merely continuing to do what it has always done from its foundation out of the 1851 Crystal Palace Great Exhibition, characterised by Karl Marx as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities, which was obviously why it was visited by 8,000,000 people, equivalent to a third of the population at the time. Kylie is the most popular show in the V&A’s history, had 4,000 bookings before it even opened and operates a system of timed visitors (the bureaucratic way of letting it be known that you really do have a big hit show); admission is free. The danger is that the exceptional success of this show will create an expectation, even an insistence, from Downing Street’s fretting underlings for such figures to be maintained, thus determining the kind of shows that can be put on in the future, and limiting curatorial choice to lowest common denominator market values, which are ones of novelty, easiest access, entertainment and celebrity. It is not that the Kylie show is wrong in itself, but it would be wrong if every show becomes pressured to be a Kylie show.

I put across the essence of this line of thinking, whilst seated on the sofa with Dermot and Kate, who then asked me if I would be going to the show, in a charming and forward way which somehow seemed to have determined already that the answer was “yes”, which is what I found myself saying, after which I found myself emerging from the tube at South Kensington.

Not the Trocadero

Kylie – The Exhibition is big, bright, colourful and full of razzmatazz and non-stop Minogue music. For a moment I thought I was in the Trocadero Centre. It’s fun, warm, celebratory and exuberant – just like Kylie. Naturally it is also completely superficial. After all it’s the props of cabaret and showbiz. Thankfully there’s no mention of art and its attendant gobbledy-gook explanations: the wall displays speak of the “evolution, experimentation and beauty” of “a modern day perfomer and celebrity.” Seems fair enough to me. It is all courtesy of the Melbourne Performing Arts Collection. Prince Albert would have been pleased at the numbers of the populace in attendance, all absorbed in the spectacle and raising their standard of design and industry, though it probably didn’t need the V&A to provide giant videos of concert performances any more than it needed the Tate to provide giant slides. However, the videos are only part of the show, generate atmosphere and get you going, in more ways than one.

It’s primarily a show of clothes, but also of numerous CD covers, photographs, design illustrations and a reconstructed dressing room complete with a table of make up accoutrements, a rack of exotic costumes and open pink drawers stuffed with high heeled shoes. I found this room the most interesting part of the show. The glamour was deconstructed into privacy, intimacy and vulnerability. It invited immediate comparison with Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the latter being art because Tracey is an artist and says it is and the Tate has exhibited it, the former not being art because Kylie isn’t an artist (at least not that kind of artist) and hasn’t said it’s art and the V&A has exhibited it. The objects are different but the genre and the experience are the same, namely the aftermath of abandoned possessions, redolent of human activity, personality, emotion and absence.

It isn’t Tracey, so it isn’t art

I departed temporarily under the spell of the pop princess, who transforms the world into a bright, comforting euphoria, which is a state of artificiality rather than realisation. It must, I thought, be a spell she also casts on herself. I don’t doubt mutual friends who tell me she really is a nice person. That’s the problem. She certainly appears to have a reality-defying niceness about her, not to mention a reality-defying diminutiveness — I met her briefly some years ago, and when she first entered the room I mistook her for a twelve year old. She is also remarkably honest and respectful, once phoning up Billy Childish (do all roads lead to Childish — it could be the new degrees of separation game?) to ask if she could use an idea from the title of his poetry book Poems to Break the Harts [sic] of Impossible Princesses, which she later did, as the Impossible Princess tour and album. He told her he wouldn’t have realised, even if she’d just nicked it without bothering to ask him. She also chose one of his angst-drenched paintings for a book, and would doubtless have continued the dialogue had he not been gratuitously rude, which is his normal tactic to put off admirers to prevent them sustaining the self-adulation he has spent many years attempting to escape.

Jung, amongst others, has pointed to the shadow, the unconscious polar opposite to the conscious self, and the internal and external structures we create as defence mechanisms in order to buttress our preferred version of reality and keep the darkness at bay. He has also pointed out that facing and transforming the darkness is our means of growth. One doesn’t get the impression Kylie is much given to inquire into whatever darkness may be compacted within her to generate the driving force that fuels world class ambition of 65 million record sales and audiences up to 3.7 billion, as, after all, she is “a showgirl at heart” and when the show is going on (as it must), there’s not much time for sustained self-scrutiny. That is left to those with a different destiny, which takes me to my other, and contrasting, port of call, the show Born To Be Bold by Gina Bold at the Arlington Gallery. I’d gained entry to the booked-up Kylie show in the majestic premises of the V&A on the basis of reviewing it for 3:AM, so I didn’t imagine there would be a great problem getting access to a small gallery in Camden, but I was wrong.

Born To Be Bold is open till Sunday 11 March (11am – 5pm) at the Arlington Gallery, Parkway, Camden, London (tel. 020 7267 5641). The Kylie show is open till 10 June, and advance booking is recommended.

PART TWO follows here.

Charles Thomson
(a schoolmate of Douglas Adams) was the only person in 10 years to fail the painting degree at Maidstone College of Art. In 1979, he was a founder member of The Medway Poets, and then a full-time poet for 13 years, with work in over 100 anthologies. In 1999 he named, co-founded and has since been the driving force of the Stuckism movement, which now numbers more than 150 groups in 38 countries. He has demonstrated for 7 years outside the Turner Prize, and in 2005 applied under the Freedom of Information Act for Tate trustee minutes about the gallery’s purchase of its trustee Chris Ofili’s work. This led in 2006 to the Charity Commission’s ruling that the Tate had been acting illegally for the last 50 years. His painting satirising Sir Nicholas Serota, whose face peers over a large pair of (Tracey Emin’s) red knickers, is a well-known image. He was briefly married to artist Stella Vine in 2001.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 8th, 2007.