Let’s Pretend

David Lee

July/August 2021

The National Gallery has prostrated itself before what Orwell called  ‘the official mind’. It must have done because the less said about Rosalind Nashashibi, their current artist-in-residence, the better … but don’t worry I’ll bore you anyway. She is exhibiting her recent efforts among the 17th century Spanish pictures to which, it is claimed, her own works are said to respond. Any connections – and they will not be obvious to anybody with normal vision – are remote and in one instance, a parody of Philip IV’s legs, positively infantile. These daubs should not have been exhibited at all, anywhere, let alone here of all places. Surely no commercial gallery would consider showing them. And I can’t believe anyone would actually buy them … but then there’s no accounting for the taste of filthy rich fools itching to be fashionable. These pictures can only be exhibited because those in authority have lost the plot and are scared to express an honest opinion about them for fear of offending State Art mores.

This phenomenon of applauding or tolerating incompetence needs to be answered. The one thing a visitor might reasonably expect of anyone showing in the National Gallery is pictorial skill, but this is precisely the qualification conspicuous by its absence. Is there really no one at the National with the nerve to speak up? Why are some of the top curators of their generation prepared to tolerate a display of such obvious and insulting crudity? There is here no drawing, colour, touch, composition or intelligent insight. If Hodgkin’s pathetic account of Seurat’s Bathers or Peter Blake’s feeble-minded versions of the NG’s bare breasts didn’t look bad enough when exhibited among the Gallery’s collection, Nashashibi’s hopeless pictures are even more embarrassing than those.

What makes it worse is that some poor minion drew the short straw and had to write accompanying (presumably explanatory) drivel. As with so much official commentary on Contemporary Art there is no relationship between what is seen and what is written. If you mixed up pictures and captions to play Pelmanism no way could you relate any one image to any sentence except by a fluke. What, for example, in relation to two flat formless figures, one allegedly dancing in front of the other (for which we have only the writer’s word), is this supposed to mean: “[A Drop of Scent] explores ways in which a single moment can be experienced on multiple physical and emotional levels.” Don’t be stupid. No it doesn’t. Nothing is ‘explored’. These works couldn’t ‘explore’ if they had a map, because the basics of picture making have not been learned. Indeed, they are done by someone who clearly hasn’t a clue such requirements exist.

How can knowledgeable curators turn a blind eye to this nonsense? By going along with the State Art tendency to pretend that ineptitude is acceptable, cowardly people are doing permanent damage to the credibility of art by institutionalising incompetence. It is beyond belief that the Director of the National Gallery can have supported this, lending authority and status to daubs so undeserving. This display is typical of our present culture of fear, the terror felt by many of speaking truth. But for as long as those who should be defending painting turn a blind eye standards will continue to plummet. 

 It seems that where establishment-approved painting after about 1980 is concerned those with a grounding in art appreciation must suspend judgement and accept any scribble anyone produces on the grounds that new and mysterious criteria apply to its appreciation. But where are those who are supposed to be explaining convincingly this mystery to a wider public?

The idea that the National Gallery must show work by recent artists in relation to its own collection, and especially when there is no connection at all, is wrong-headed. It is yet another instance of ‘Let’s All Pretend’ that different species share the same DNA and are as good as each other. You might as well hang Bob and Roberta Smith in the Arena Chapel or Lynette Wotsername among the Villa Valmorana’s Tiepolos. There’s no point, it’s just silly.

And why bother appointing an artist-in-residence who can’t possibly benefit from intimate daily contact with the greatest masterpieces of the past?

We now regularly land robots on Mars and yet 30,000 years ago cavemen using only sticks, fingers, spit and coloured dirt could draw and paint more expressively than today’s State Artists. David Lee (See also Moping Owl overleaf and the review of the latest John Moores on p. 10.)