Editorial – July 2017


In the last issue I noted the gradual but relentless erosion of space allocated to historical pictures in Tate Britain. This contraction will now accelerate because the collection is to be re-hung, yet again, on this occasion thematically – a policy undoubtedly designed to demonstrate the State Art Commandment that all roads shall lead to the Usual Suspects. Long gone are the reassuring days of my youth when a regular visitor to Millbank would know exactly where to find the enduring gems of British art. This trend of squeezing the historical is also inevitable because new art increases as a percentage of the collection. Hedging their bets, and in order not to miss something the future decides is important, the Tate now acquires anything by anyone. To them the idea of exhibiting discernment is as damningly reactionary as the idea of figurative art itself. The result is that Serota’s true legacy is not really all those expensive new buildings and extensions but his total surrender to mediocrity.

A well-researched article on the Guardian website recently arrived at the startling, though not entirely surprising conclusion that during Serota’s recently concluded 28-year tenure the number of works in the Tate’s holding – excluding the Turner Bequest – doubled. Serota added over 30,000 new items, the majority of them box fresh. We’ve pointed out previously in these pages that the Tate’s stock has grown every two years by more works than the National Gallery has acquired in total in the 193 years of its existence. The irony here is that this massive growth, both of the collection and the galleries in which to house some of it, has taken place during a period when scarcely a month passed without warnings of dire consequences if more public subsidy wasn’t found. On the evidence of the collection alone, and for all Serota’s gloomy predictions to the contrary, the Tate has enjoyed a golden age of expansion during which it swallowed far more than its fair share of the national arts budget.

Most of the work acquired during the Serota years is by a roll call of artists you’ve never heard of, many of whom are not only living but young, and whose efforts wouldn’t have merited preservation in what at least in theory, until Serota took over, had always been a repository for choice works of proven quality. Not any more. Today, the collection is home to the kind of instantly forgettable trivia we see in Tate Modern’s latest extension.

Serota’s reign was also responsible for a serious reorientation in the way we must approach art. State-approved styles and mediums now require a different way of looking. Established criteria of judgement were replaced by a new ‘vision’ discouraging of knowledge and preconceptions. Dinosaurs, such as myself, who were trained in stylistic comparisons and the identification and explanation of minute visual subtleties, have been mystified by this, confounded by the obvious feebleness of what is relentlessly marketed as the acme of achievement. It took me longer than it ought to have done to realise that if you start with any assumptions at all about what the Arts Council dubs ‘Challenging Contemporary Art’ you are certain to be disappointed. Even the lowest demands will lead to bewilderment. Another of Serota’s legacies is, therefore, that in looking at contemporary art we must all start with no expectations whatsoever, and, what is more, from the furthest extremity of ignorance and credulity. Only then might we not be disappointed, for in these Year-Zero days even the equivalent of a baby spluttering to communicate can be sold as progress.

As Alexander Adams points out in his thoughtful review concerning the material poverty of many artists (see page 8), the probability of low incomes has not, as one might have predicted, caused a reduction in numbers. Far from it. Students have been sold the pup that anyone can do it with the result that a massive surplus is being produced, too little is worth the time spent looking at it, and too much that is self-evidently stillborn is speculatively hoarded by national institutions.

Generally, Serota’s legacy is a beautifully polished reflection of his age, in so far as it was one of unsustainable, undiscriminating acquisitiveness. Our population was addicted – a serious sickness – to shopping, fashion, momentary gratification and the instantly obsolete, and so was Serota. And just as ‘Austerity Chancellor’ Osborne borrowed more money than all his predecessors since Robert Walpole combined, so Serota acquired more stuff than all the previous seven Tate directors put together.

David Lee
The Jackdaw Jul/Aug 2017