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Despite a petition against his reappointment and the small, but legal, matter that the trustees bypassed the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 by not getting approval from the PM, Nicholas Serota has been made a “permanent employee” of the Tate art galleries; that is, a job for life. If, as Paul Vallely says in The Independent, Serota is “without doubt, the greatest single champion of modern art in Britain, and has been so for the past three decades and more”, an opinion seconded in the same paper, why the opposition?

The Stuckists, formed by Charles Thomson and Billy Childish (who later left) and champions of figurative paintings in opposition to conceptual art, have long been against decisions taken under Serota’s tutelage (see, ‘Would you spend £1,000,000 for this? The Tate did“and “Tate Gallery hung works by its own trustees”).

Finding an unlikely ally in art critic Brian Sewell, who criticized Serota’s Tate as “hocus-pocus and mumbo jumbo by which the false intellectuals of the art world are able to ‘hey presto!’ anything into art, be it the dung of elephants, the video of a medical camera’s examination of an artist’s uterus, anus and digestive tract, an erect cucumber projecting from a stained mattress, or a dead horse suspended from a dome”, Thomson explained his opposition to Serota to Artistica in 2006:

The Tate is seriously deficient in areas of early to mid twentieth century art because of the narrow collecting policy of its directors and trustees of the time. Anybody that confronted that narrowness at the time would now be vindicated and praised, though they would not have been then. The Tate’s collecting policy is equally narrow today. Serota doubtless thinks he’s avoiding the mistakes of the past and is backing the right horse this time, but the mistake is in backing any one horse in the field. That is to gamble that one’s own hunch is the correct one, which is the prerogative of the private collector, not the public administrator.

The only sound policy for a public institution is what the Director of Tate Britain, Stephen Deuchar, promised in 2000 and has since lamentably failed to deliver, namely a “comprehensive overview”. I have my own judgement and think conceptual art is over-rated and pretentious. That is my right as an individual. However, if I were in charge of the national collection, I would include it, because it is an area of current artistic practice and of historic interest. In fact, at the Stuckism International gallery I had a cabinet of conceptualism with examples like a Mike Dawson brick painted gold and marked £200, so that people could make a direct comparison.

That is the sort of thing that the Tate should be doing, but Serota doesn’t have that breadth. He is actually very parsimonious. It has to be what he considers “difficult” or “challenging”, but that kind of work is now done mindlessly because it has become the convention. It is a very safe route in the contemporary art world, because it guarantees acceptance. It is the only value he can engage with. It is presented as the most valuable attribute and I have no doubt he is perfectly sincere about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s right and it doesn’t mean the future will think it’s right. Values that were considered obvious and unassailable in Victorian times are certainly not considered to be so nowadays.

It is clear to anyone that has bothered to study any history and think about it, that the unforeseen can easily invalidate a contemporary consensus. There are plenty of precedents for fashionable work being considerably downgraded later. The French nineteenth-century academic painter Bouguereau is a classic example. The reverse is of course also true – work dismissed by the establishment at the time can later seen as the really worthwhile art. Other values that were not anticipated turn out to be the important ones. The only sound policy is to represent properly the diversity of contemporary creativity. It is the curator’s job to find out what’s going on and include it – not ignore it because it doesn’t fit in with his/her personal vision. It is, one might say, a question of experience, not interpretation.

And, more recently, in CounterPunch:

…The strength and independence of the trustee board has been eroded. It does not represent a balance of views and it does not represent the wider public, as it should. Far from fulfilling the legal requirement that “the director shall be responsible to the Board for the general exercise of the Board’s function”, the board has become the stooge of the director. There needs to be a government review and protocols established so that genuinely independent voices take trustee office. Regarding the current self-perpetuating coterie at the Tate, the obvious solution is an entirely new board to be chosen by an independent body, and the last person who should have a say in this is the Tate director.

Further: Serota petition.

First posted: Tuesday, August 19th, 2008.

There are currently 2 comments on this post. You can follow all the comments on this post through this RSS feed.

  1. oh my God. This one reminded me of the time I got kicked out of the seventh grade for telling on a girl who picked her nose and ate it!!

  2. Clearly it is time for a change. But to what or whom? Would any replacement be much better? The Tate’s brief should be reconsidered and its empire broken up. As a start the Turner Bequest should be reunited in a separate museum instead of being toured round the world (currently getting a rather unappreciative reception in New York).

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