Tate Britain needs its identity back

In recent issues I’ve described how since 1945 the education, bureaucracy and exponentially increasing cash for the visual arts have been usurped and dominated by an evolving one-track mindset which, in these pages, is called State Art. This sinister subversion of the institutions, predicted before and after the last war by Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Orwell among others, is complete with the recent appointment of Doctor Balshaw as overall Director of the Tate (see last editorial). She understands nothing but that which is ‘Contemporary’, a qualification (if that is an appropriate description) which makes her uniquely unsuitable for running three galleries with what should be historical and scholarly functions. 

The sad truth now is that the Tate has become a gallery of contemporary art with a marginalised historical concession on the side, whereas its original function was the reverse of this. The revolution that has taken place for this to happen over the last half century is an object lesson in change by incremental stealth. It is the perfect demonstration of what Rudi Dutschke meant when, confronted with the fact that a successful immediate proletarian revolution was impossible in western Europe, he referred to the necessity to operate clandestinely from inside, a process he famously dubbed “the long march through the institutions”. This would, he predicted, lead to the eventual substitution of one establishment by another independent of any popular support. And in the case of the contemporary visual arts this means a far more repressive, hidebound and authoritarian regime than the one it replaced.

Writing in 1971 political scientist Leonard Schapiro observed: “[T]he true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.” He was referring to Stalinism but he might just as easily have said it about an equally dictatorial State Art. Such is the blind faith in the New Scripture for Contemporary Art, and the impossibility of apostasy from it (like membership of the Euro the only exit from State Art is a door marked Disaster), that any attempt to question the evolving orthodoxy and monopoly has condemned any would-be non-conformist to immediate ostracism. The predictable chorus of positive opinion at the appointment of Dr Quack is evidence of this common fear of being targeted as a “jarring dissonant” and the career disaster it portends. Her inadequacies are blindingly obvious but who in the arts commentariat actually mentioned them? There is now a terror in the visual arts of telling even a fraction of the truth. Thus has State Art been allowed to prosper in a parallel universe impenetrable to public interest and criticism which renders its functionaries untouchable and self-perpetuating, and – like Moonies – eternally pleased with themselves.

 With Dr Q’s appointment, and the earlier elevation of a contemporary art specialist to head Tate Britain, the takeover of the institutions is complete. We have arrived at Dutschke’s Year Zero. The art of Now has become its own justification, as if nothing before matters. This is the curious process by which an uncoupled past has become an irrelevance. If it goes in any direction at all the story of art now travels backwards, and not very far back at that. State Art-approved galleries have become locked in the bubble of a continuous present inside which nearly all recent ‘masterpieces’ and ‘challenges’, ‘subversions’ and ‘explorations’ are almost instantly forgotten because really they were meritless to start with and their importance routinely overstated. Yesterday’s work is replaced swiftly by today’s and accompanied by the now familiar hyperbole, for in the visual arts we are trapped on the treadmill of perpetual mediocrity.

Consider this. In 1946 there were two curators and one director at the Tate. There are now 17 directors alone. On the Tate’s website they don’t publish a full staff organisation chart, most probably because that would give away the scale of empire-building that has recently gone on there (despite its predictable annual cries of poverty). Instead 46 staff are listed as examples of what they call “the broad range of academic and professional expertise in the organisation”. In fact, the ‘range’ it describes is the narrowest of bottlenecks. Over two thirds of the staff on this list are modern and contemporary curators, mainly the latter; a fifth relate to art before 1920; and the rest are dedicated to conservation and managerial wonks with mystifying job titles. 

Such a bias in favour of the contemporary is justified at Tate Modern but it isn’t a prejudice appropriate at Tate Britain or the two satellites reliant on its historical collection. These galleries should show and research what is established and not that which is either speculative, market driven or the current whim of a dominant, highly prejudiced clique of curators and their favourite dealers. 

And so it is urgently necessary to split off Tate Modern from the rest of the franchise. A different ethos must apply at Tate Britain, a gallery whose historical works should be its justification not its embarrassment. Not all the Tate’s galleries should have to pay the necessary lip service to Schapiro’s “uniform pattern” demanded by State Art, as is currently the case.

This dismantling of Serota’s unwieldy empire has been mooted before but now he’s gone for good it’s an urgent necessity, especially when we have a scholarly nobody in charge of the world’s most important collection of historical British art. It is a serious crime of negligence to abandon the organisation to the leadership it has. Having someone in charge of Tate Britain who has no credibility in the history of British Art might be fine in a gallery of contemporary art – even then it’s not exactly desirable – but it is perverse in an institution which began life in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art ­– which was, incidentally, run until 1954 by the National Gallery.

Tate Britain today is heading relentlessly in the direction of becoming a museum of Modern and Contemporary British art with some history attached. If you have a person in charge whose knowledge stretches back only to the week before last this continued drift is inevitable.

The space for work before 1920 is constantly being squeezed. Currently the building is split into three parts. The vast middle strip, the Duveen Galleries, is customarily wasted promoting an over-rated contemporary. At the moment it is White Cuber Cerith Wyn Evans with sprawling, incoherent patterns of white neon tubing signifying only he knows what. A ‘Senior Curator of Contemporary Art’ writes of this piece on an ‘information’ board: “In this commission CWE has responded to the space of the Duveen Galleries by creating a neon installation which focuses on ideas around the folds and flows of energy via material and immaterial conduits.” Only the author knows what that means. So the gallery’s middle third is wasted. 

The eastern third is modern British art since roughly 1920, much of it minor and nearly all of it illustrative of the Modernist Creed. At the far end Hockney currently occupies galleries which usually act as a graveyard for the latest Turner Prize. In the front corner is the Turner annexe, now also used to house Constables which used to live in what is a new ‘installation’ space.

The western third used to be all history and is the most popular section. Visited but not crowded it is a perfect place to study those pictures which are hung well enough for the purpose; that is, low enough and not skied as many paintings are here. A shop has intruded at the south end to make way for an ‘Art Now’ gallery on the ‘modern’ side where the shop used to be. Large installation spaces and a photography gallery have also cut sizeable chunks out of this wing. The impression is of a distant history tolerated by being piled high in a restricted space, but which is far from celebrated.Tate Britain urgently needs it own identity. The current regime will not deliver this because all they are capable of understanding is “material and immaterial conduits”.