The Serpentine as fat cat

Why should the interests of those in limousines be subsidised by the rest of us?

What is the difference between a line of black limousines at a Mob funeral in Brooklyn and an identical cavalcade at the opening party of the new Serpentine Gallery annexe in Hyde Park? Well, not as much as you’d think. Although Cosa Nostra are undoubtedly the subtler of the two coteries represented, both have a common interest in protection rackets. In the case of the Serpentine this means inflating the reputation and value of the deluxe ‘branded’ art which will be shown there and will have originated, or will end up, in the collections of the limousines’ occupants.

Unaware that a shindig was in progress I cycled past the Serpentine while the limos were chrome-to-chrome outside. At first this didn’t register as unusual: another evening, another hoolie for the vain and vulgar at the Serpentine… One has got used to it. But the image of those black limousines, just that few inches too long, that shade too opaque, that chauffeur-wipe too shiny, lingered until it formed an indelible symbol for everything that stinks about State Art. What is passed off as ‘public interest’ and ‘the public appetite for contemporary art’ (the latter is the often repeated favourite lie of President-For-Life Serota himself) 400 Bad Request is yet another means by which the wealthy protect their interests. The public has no say in what is shown in the Serpentine despite the fact we have always paid for it. And if we don’t like it we can eat cake.

Here is a publicly funded art gallery which specializes in showing recent art of negligible visible quality, that the public couldn’t care a toss about, which is hawked by the world’s wealthiest and most powerful shopkeepers, has its value maintained by salerooms who rig prices during glamorous soirées, is traded in by billionaire collectors who purport to like it but treat it merely as a secure commodity of exchange, and is endorsed using a new language written by “international curators” no literate outsider can fathom. You couldn’t invent a more perfectly rounded system of self-interest and exclusion.

The limos were celebrating the Serpentine’s latest expansion. A listed neo-classical building of agreeable proportions by Decimus Burton, formerly an arsenal close to the main gallery, has had a café and restaurant designed by Zaha Hadid attached to it. Enjoying limitless freedoms of manoeuvre as it does, State Art never has any problem acquiring permission for one of its chosen architects to tamper with the historically important and therefore supposedly protected. In this case what resembles the roots of a gigantic wisdom tooth have been impacted on the side of a Doric portico. It couldn’t be less sympathetic and like everything gratuitously eye-catching it is unnecessary. New gallery spaces are poky and the café charges £3.38 for a small cup of waiter-delivered coffee. How very charitable – come to think of it just like those other exemplary, public-spirited ‘charities’, the Royal Academy and The Art Fund.

Between them the limousines paid the £14 million cost for the expansion, as well they might as many of them will be its main beneficiaries. Running costs and an exhibition programme have been underwritten with a £3 million endowment from the Lottery. This comes on top of the minimum £1.3 million a year the gallery has always received from the Arts Council. In fact, in the 19-year history of the National Lottery, the Serpentine has received no fewer than twelve awards totalling £6.8 million. Thus is the Serpentine the means by which money from the poorest, those who buy lotto tickets and scratch cards, is laundered to assist the wealthiest (non-doms many of them) in the appreciation of their investment portfolios. This revolting system is defended by the all-purpose State Art lie that the likes of the Serpentine “provide a public service”. Up to a point, but the real winners are behind all that dark glass.

The Serpentine is run by a pair perfectly suited to their task: one is a dim socialite who does as she’s told, while the other is a Swiss “international curator” who speaks six languages and has neither penned nor spoken a clear sentence in any one of them.

So who pays for the Serpentine? You do. Who is it for? Definitely not you. What is its purpose? Mind your own business.

David Lee