In the dash to internationalism the national is trampled underfoot, argues Laura Gascoigne.
In November, Lund Humphries celebrated 75 years of publishing books on British art with an anniversary talk at the ICA titled ‘Is there such a thing as British art?’ It was chaired by Tim Marlow, now of the Royal Academy, and debated by a panel composed of Iwona Blazwick from the Whitechapel, Emma Dexter from the British Council and artists Nathan Coley and Yinka Shonibare. Don’t ask me what was said, as the event was so oversubscribed I couldn’t get a ticket.
British art is on a bit of a roll. True, no YBAs made it onto ArtReview’s Power 100 list last year, but Cameron’s gift to his new ‘bro’ Obama of a Henry Moore print of Stonehenge did seem to reflect a newfound confidence in our national art. It certainly upped the ante on the special gift-giving relationship after the boxed set of classic American film DVDs presented by Obama to Gordon Brown in 2009. But while national pride in the art of the past still seems permissible, it has started to look iffy when applied to the present. Patriotism has no place in a global art world. Hence the further questions raised by the Lund Humphries debate: “Is there an inherent, identifiable ‘Britishness’ in the art made in these islands today? Or is any notion of a culturally significant Britishness now redundant?”
In his autumn pep talk to participants in the 56th Venice Biennale, President Paolo Baratta recalled the reaction against national pavilionism in 1999 that prompted the creation of the International Exhibition “to offer the world a global sounding board”. The man in charge of this year’s sounding board is Nigerian Okwui Enwezor and his exhibition, inclusively titled All the World’s Futures, will invite visitors to “read the Giardini with its [sic] ramshackle assemblage of pavilions as the ultimate site of a disordered world, of national conflicts, as well as territorial and geopolitical explorations.”
In a disordered world, blowing one’s national art trumpet is obviously out; the polite thing to do is to tootle on the trumpets of one’s fellow nations. And currently auditioning for the post of international trumpeter-in-chief is the director of our very own Tate Modern, which has been scrambling to diversify its collections in preparation for the post-pavilionist age. In November 2012 a special report on Tate’s International Activities announced the formation over the previous decade of a series of Acquisitions Committees supporting “Tate’s global reach”. Between them, the North American (2001), Latin American (2002), Asia-Pacific (2007), Middle East and North Africa (2009) and African (2011) committees have added over 100 works to the collection. Two more committees – South Asia and Russia & Eastern Europe – are in the pipeline.
It was Serota’s cultivation of a global powerbase, rather than his winning personality, that won him top spot in last year’s Power 100. “Tate Modern very aggressively internationalized quite quickly,” explained ArtReview’s editor Mark Rappolt. “It is not a national collection, it is an international collection that happens to be in London.” Like the British Museum, in other words, except that the nations from which the Tate is acquiring this stuff are unlikely to hire Mrs Clooney to get it back.
In our hyper-connected world, global art is a development as unavoidable as global terrorism. But whereas global terrorism has a clear idea what it’s about, global art is undecided. At the moment it’s professing anti-capitalism in a general, innocuous sort of way. Enwezor’s Venice exhibition will open with a live reading of all four volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital, “building into an epic display of orality”. Groan if you will, but Enwezor is a global player with a bunch of biennials under his belt. He curated the Lagos section of Tate Modern’s Century City in 2001 and was responsible for fellow-Nigerian Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997-2002 – “challenging ideas of an authentic ‘African’ experience” – that took over several rooms of Tate Modern in 2013. I remember it as a pleasantly shambolic collection of brightly coloured ephemera with interleaved bank notes representing capital. When the rooms were cleared, the Museum was put into storage. It was an early purchase by the African Acquisitions Committee.
I’m wary of art acquisition by committee, believing that great collections are formed by individuals, but acquisition by foreign art committee – if you can still say ‘foreign’ – is far more worrying. On its leader page the Russian-owned London Evening Standard welcomed the Tate’s 2012 announcement of its international activities on the grounds that its ambition to “build itself up as an international brand… can only help to add to London’s image in the world”. Hang on there, Lebedev. Tate & Lyle is an international brand. The Tate is, or was, a national art gallery. It is responsible to the nation for many images, but London’s isn’t one of them. It is also expected to maintain ethical standards a notch or two higher than your average multinational. Two more reasons given by ArtReview for Serota’s global domination of its Power 100 were the amount of income the Tate receives from foreign private sources and the number of collectors on its international acquisitions committees – collectors who are presumably honour bound to recommend the artists in their own collections.
Are these acquisitions really necessary? If the object is to introduce audiences to art from around the world – and ‘ART FROM AROUND THE WORLD’ is what it is currently advertised on the builders’ hoardings outside Tate Modern – there are cheaper alternatives to acquisitions, known as loans. But as you will have noticed, this spurt of international collecting activity coincides with the tacking of Herzog & de Meuron’s multistorey starship park onto the back of Giles Gilbert Scott’s former power station. The Tate is looking to its international committees and foreign income sources to solve the problem of filling this vast unwanted space on the cheap by shopping in relatively undeveloped markets. But it could shop even more cheaply at home if it was prepared to look at national artists without international reputations.
“Real Art history is always part of national history,” wrote the Russian critic Boris Groys a few years ago. “There is a global art market, but there are no international institutions.” The Tate aims to change that. Assuming its extension is ever finished – and mothballing it would take a mountain of camphor – its internationalism may give it short-term novelty appeal. If it succeeds, other national galleries will follow and the world will be dotted with multinational outlets offering sameness rather than diversity in the name of universality. What will be lost in translation will be local dialects, the nuances of expression peculiar to art that is rooted in a shared culture in a particular place.
The test of universality in art is not its ubiquity but its ability to communicate on a human level across cultures. Here’s what the cosmopolitan Kitaj had to say on the subject: “I have a hunch that pictures only achieve universal interest by way of the muddle of obsessed attentions (the stuff that excites one in life) to which a very skilled painter exposes his or her picture… That attention might be variously Christian, African, Neurotic, Alien, Decorative, deeply English or any complex sensibility – you name it, but I wouldn’t trust an art too much if it was damn well determined to be universal like Esperanto, which a lot of art now looks like… because you are what you are and what can be more human than that?”