David Lee: State Art and Its Commissars

David Lee

The following essay was included in:

What is Wrong with Us? Essays in Cultural Pathology
Edited by Eric Coombes and Theodore Dalrymple
Imprint Academic
2016, 300pp., pb., £12.95

Arnold Goodman, Chairman of the Arts Council from 1965 to 1972, observed: ‘It is not the job of an unelected body to make cultural policy.’ Implicit here is an understanding that the Arts Council, whose members are unelected and minutes for whose meetings are not published because they are not taken, must respond to what artists produce and not presume to impose conditions upon them. Goodman’s common sense might have been true of the Arts Council in those innocent days, but it couldn’t be further from the case now. Today, in the visual arts, not only has the Council arrived at a hard-line policy uncompromisingly enforced by true believers, but they are also apparently unconcerned that their chosen protocol excludes the majority of artists whose needs the Council was originally set up to meet. Unfortunately, all other major institutions responsible for contemporary art’s organization subscribe equally ardently to the same prescriptive credo. This divisive policy was not the creation of any one of these bodies alone, but—as we shall discover later—the result of coinciding attitudes occurring in all of them at more or less the same time. 

For twenty years I have been referring to this closed shop as ‘State Art’—a phrase deliberately chosen for its echoes of autocratic regimes—because what we are forced to endure in Britain in the visual arts represents just as narrow a tyranny as the Soviet Union’s adoption of Socialist Realism as its approved style. Both represent intolerant and oppressive dictatorships, the only difference being that the battle between futurism and populist realism waged in the USSR for fifteen years from 1917 after which the latter won. Our own version of State Art is declaimed by an exclusive élite, who claim specialist knowledge and insight about work that is solipsistic and cannot be judged by any agreed criteria. Ruthlessly untraditional, this frequently puerile individualism is imposed upon the rest of us. Of course, we enjoy the freedom to seek out other work if we can find it, but State Art’s dominance, and especially its close partial control of the purse, ensures that this is made difficult and inconvenient. As officially sanctioned ideologues of approved taste, there is little to choose between Serota and Zhdanov. State Art is a lockdown.

During the 1980s a definite ideology for the visual arts achieved critical mass. It was based on a belief which had been slowly fermenting over several decades. Its motivation was a desire to discriminate against conventional art styles and mediums now considered old fashioned, boring, irrelevant and unnecessary. What was traditional and familiar would play no further part in any official policy for the visual arts. Thus, by promoting only what was by its novel and experimental nature unfamiliar and difficult to grasp for most viewers, the Arts Council showed contempt for the needs of its potential audiences, those whom, or so it claims perennially in official documents, it is endeavouring to please. In short it began to give to viewers the kind of work preferred by those who ran the organization, not what its intended audiences might wish to see, and certainly not what the majority of artists were producing.

Many will have forgotten just how shamelessly corrupt was the Arts Council’s administration at that time. A Visual Arts Committee, scrapped in the mid-90s following a campaign of bad press in the Evening Standard and Art Review (all inspired by Michael Daley’s groundbreaking research published in the correspondence columns of Art Monthly from July 1981 onwards) comprised in large part those who were themselves major recipients of the Council’s largesse. Not surprisingly, and while they had the chance, they voted for the continuation of their own livelihoods. Nakedly self-serving, the whole edifice stank, but a precedent of keeping all decision-making securely in-house had been established. Only reliable supporters of the new direction would ever be allowed close to the levers of control. This policy remains intact today.

Simply stated, the Arts Council’s adopted policy is one in which a single mindset alone is tolerated. Newspapers call it ‘Conceptual’ or ‘Minimal’, roughly equating it with work featured annually in the Turner Prize; that is, in the opinion of State Art’s chosen apostles, the most outstanding contribution made by a visual artist under 50 during the previous twelve months. It is, of course, taken as read that the most outstanding contributions will always be ‘conceptual’ in nature. With typical vagueness, the Arts Council calls its preferred work ‘innovative’ or ‘challenging’, with additional reference to its favoured demographic, ‘young and emerging artists’. The Council has the nerve to describe this narrow perversion as ‘encouraging good practice’ (my italics). Good as opposed to bad; bad meaning the majority who refuse to conform knowing that such a decision will condemn them to permanent obscurity. 

This obsession with the young introduces the ugly realization that the Arts Council’s visual art department operates an age bar. This bias prevents established artists of different generations and stylistic inclinations from receiving the retrospectives that their long careers merit, and which only a generation ago they would have received in the Council’s expanding network of galleries. For example, in 2012 the last living Official War Artist of the Second World War, Leonard Rosoman, died at 98. He had a long and varied career in illustration, painting and poster design and had been a member of the Royal Academy for nearly forty years. So where was the curator in any of our many public galleries curious enough to bring together a commemorative survey of his work? On the other side of this coin are ranged the fashionable middle-aged conceptual artists many of whom are on their second touring retrospectives courtesy of the Arts Council. Perhaps some, like myself, may remember those days when public galleries organized retrospectives of older artists as they approached the end of their career. This is no longer encouraged, with the result that tracts of significant art history have vanished on the wind. Through the Arts Council’s obsessions we have lost far more than has been gained.

The preferred State Art style is one from which conventional art skills have been extirpated, the kind of work from which actual ‘making’ by the artist himself can be entirely absent. The principal tool of the favoured State Artist would appear to be the mobile telephone, used to commission others to make the work they can then exhibit as their own. Reflecting the bewilderment of many at this ‘advance’, Sir Tom Stoppard commented when speaking as a guest of honour at a Royal Academy dinner: ‘The term artist isn’t intelligible to me if it doesn’t entail making.’ He was roundly denounced by protectors of the State Art flame for being reactionary—which was rich coming from them. What does he know anyway? Perhaps he should commission someone else to write his next play—he could describe roughly what he requires and then pass off their work as his own because it was, after all, his idea in the first place.

In a successful inversion of ancestral art practices, the new culture commissars have made a virtue of lauding the unskilled; to be without craft is State Art’s chief membership qualification. There are those among the sort of brainwashed drones competing for preferment on the slopes of State Art who talk and write with approbation about the de-skilling of art education, as though this were laudable. Only in contemporary art could such a posture be treated other than with derision. Try applying so perverse a position to any other art form. What might ‘de-skilled’ acting look like? And what would ‘de-skilled’ musicianship sound like? Since when was learning skills so oppressive? The entire world is ‘skilling up’ whilst in British art education it is deemed desirable to skill down by teaching nothing at all. 

The finished policy of State Art is, of course, a travesty of what should reasonably be demanded of a body disbursing public money. And it is unashamedly nepotistic in allocating subsidy only to those in its immediate family who exhibit similar sympathies, funding now being contingent on rigid compliance with the doctrine.

This orthodoxy has, nevertheless, enjoyed the tacit approval of politicians happy to allow an organization nominally under its control to prosecute their prejudices using the sacrosanct convenience of ‘The Arm’s Length Principle’. This had been established in the 1940s because there was a need to be seen to be avoiding imposing an official, Government-approved art. (A century earlier, in a remark echoed by many Culture Secretaries down the decades, the then Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, warned against government interference in the arts.) After all, theoretically at least, our artists were freer than those in the Soviet Union. They could do whatever they liked, even if what was produced meant nothing to anyone except other artists and critics. Maynard Keynes was the first to realize that ministerial intrusion in decision-making was undesirable. Appointed head of CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), a precursor to the Arts Council during the Second World War, he deviously insisted on reporting to the Treasury not to the arts or education ministries, who might interfere in matters of taste about which he naturally considered himself better qualified. In many ways Keynes’s superior attitude (he was an apostle of his older contemporary Roger Fry in this respect) provided the matrix for subsequent art bureaucrats, a breed who always think they know best what’s good for everyone else—and which always conveniently equates to what they themselves prefer. 

State Art has cleverly capitalized on this ‘arm’s-length’. It allows its functionaries to say one thing in public, thereby satisfying their paymasters that they are doing the right thing for everyone, while implementing quite other policies in private. Piffle such as the Arts Council’s recent legend ‘Our mission is Great art and culture for everyone’ (the emphatic capital is one of their specialities) is a typical example of this species of barefaced lie. Their narrow policy in the visual arts works against achieving anything remotely approaching that claim. That they’ve got away with such prejudice and misrepresentation for so long is astonishing. The result is that the opposite of what the Government believed was the intended purpose of subsidy—that is, something from which everyone might benefit—has come to pass.

And it gets worse. This is a state establishment that has, furthermore, decided—again in the Arts Council’s own words in a letter to me—that there is the ‘right kind’ and by implication the ‘wrong kind’, of artists. This has nothing to do with the quality of the work an artist might execute. It comes down to this: if you do not work in the designated conceptual or minimal manner, preferably with a nod and wink to ‘digital’ media (the latest of their fads) you are the ‘wrong kind’ and will not have your work exhibited, promoted or collected. Figurative painters or sculptors working today, for example, will not only almost never have their work exhibited in Arts Council galleries but also only exceptionally will it be collected by any of the bodies designated to preserve works in national or major regional collections. The stranglehold of conceptualism across all sectors is virtually absolute. As the distinguished figurative painter Stuart Pearson Wright described this system in 2001:

Few people these days really know how to paint well. Representational painters work in isolation because there is little critical or magazine coverage of this kind of work. Left to their own devices at art school, it seems that the only way to learn about figurative art is to study the work of the masters. It is easy enough to see the work of Rembrandt or Memling in the National Gallery but where can one see the work of one’s contemporaries? … Whose responsibility is it to buy for the nation worthwhile landscape, narrative scenes, portraits of anonymous sitters or other forms of representational painting? There is no national collection of contemporary representational painting as there is of installation, conceptual or minimal art. … The most worrying manifestation of this artistic dictatorship is its impact on art schools. Anyone who has attended a London art school in the last five years and has attempted to paint an easel picture will be aware of the feelings of antipathy towards representational painting that have passed down through the art establishment hierarchy and now strangle young painters. The pressure from tutors on young impressionable students to conform to the dictates of the market for trendy installations is inescapable for all but the most wilful individuals. I have heard a talented student warned by a tutor with great authority: ‘Include those self-portraits in your degree show and it will adversely affect the outcome of your grade.)

State Art’s easy authority is assisted by the fact that little criticism of it ever surfaces. No one dare question its absolutism, and few seem even aware that a problem, or indeed an alternative, exists. Rare voices who speak out against these excesses—and they tend to be older commentators with memories of better times—are derided for being mad or ignorant, not looking properly or refusing to be open-minded, or are accused of opposition for the sake of devil’s advocacy and self-promotion. Details of their arguments are contemptuously disregarded and ignored by apologists who never offer convincing explanations as to why State Art warrants its special exclusive status as a monopoly. Like any other religion, State Art demands blind faith from its adherents.

Apart from The Jackdaw, no voice now exists in print media identifying the built-in bias State Art represents, not least because many have grown up knowing it as the only show in town. Too many arts correspondents, critics and other commentators are wary of offending officialdom in case privileges—free trips home and abroad, parties, prizes, books, catalogues, commissions, whispered promises of ‘curatorial’ patronage and other perquisites—are withdrawn or forgotten. And the BBC is no exception to this. Contrary to its charter, it makes shameless advertisements for State’s Art’s most favoured. Nearly 20 years ago now I was advised that my services wouldn’t now be required on a television programme about a weak but over-promoted fashionable sculptor (now knighted!) because the artist’s gallery had said it would refuse cooperation unless all contributors were first approved by them. So much for independent commentary. In 1994 when the Evening Standard art critic, Brian Sewell, dug in his heels against the ubiquity of State Art, which he dubbed ‘The Serota Tendency’, those benefitting from the system he lampooned and who in some cases he had mocked as little better than charlatans, orchestrated a letter against him asking for his voice to be silenced on all matters pertaining to contemporary art which, they claimed, he didn’t understand. Only those from within the system are considered reliable enough to comment upon it.

In 2001 The Jackdaw conducted a survey of broadsheet press coverage of the visual arts for a full year. The results, published in February and March 2002, demonstrated compellingly that only State Art was covered in newspaper criticism (and there is no reason to think that anything has changed in the last fifteen years). The only private galleries ever prominently reviewed in 2001 were those supplying nominees to the Turner Prize—indeed (no surprise here) they were the four galleries who supplied nearly all the first fifteen winners of that prize. The Jackdaw’s editorial in March ended:

The coverage of visual art in newspapers does a disservice to the majority of artists while serving to keep their readership in ignorance of the true diversity of contemporary art. A related irony was illustrated early last year by the sad, premature death of the painter Sarah Raphael. Every paper gave news prominence to this tragedy as well as featuring extensive obituaries in which she was routinely declared a major figurative artist. None of these same papers, however, would ever have thought of reviewing her exhibitions. Why? Because if they are very lucky young figurative artists may, may, be vouchsafed a listing.

If State Art’s intolerant approach were replicated in an academic department of a serious university the lack of impartiality would be considered intellectually indefensible. Students would rebel. In art colleges, which have alarmingly high dropout rates, students do indeed vote with their feet. In a 2006 survey of student satisfaction in higher education, six of the bottom ten institutions were art colleges and the worst performing of all was the University of the Arts London (UAL), an unwieldy amalgamation of once distinguished colleges with distinctive characters. In 2015, UAL was in equal 158th place out of 160 higher education institutions for student satisfaction

The dictatorship ruling the visual arts is against the fundamental principles of any fair art subsidy; namely, that it should have no policy, express no preference and recognize excellence wherever it alights on the widest possible spectrum of styles, attitudes and mediums.

How State Art Emerged?

After 1945 a slow-motion revolution took place in art, and especially in its education, exhibition and collection. Changes evolved alongside a growth in public funding. It would be a crude but not an entirely inaccurate simplification to say that as subsidy increased so the further away from its traditions art travelled. At this early stage in its development it would also be an exaggeration to claim causal dependence between change and subsidy, because change, especially in art education, appeared inevitable anyway. Now, in 2016, we can say incontrovertibly that without Government support art of the State-Art species would not exist. Indeed, so entrenched is State Art today that the only sure way of eradicating it would be by removing its life-support machine of public funding.

The Arts Council was created in 1946. It grew seamlessly out of a body established in December 1939, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), whose job was ‘to rescue those cultural activities and interests which are threatened with extinction by war-time conditions’. In the visual arts this took the form of touring temporary exhibitions to far-flung places unused to hosting such events. Their purpose was to help artists through difficult times; to make art accessible to as many as possible; to decentralize interest in art; and to maintain morale amongst a blitzkrieged, half-starved and overworked civilian population. As early as 1936 in The Listener, Keynes had noted ‘The position today of artists of all sorts is disastrous.’

At first The Pilgrim Trust funded these tours with £25,000, but the Treasury added £50,000 from April 1940. This was the first Government award given to visual arts outside of those annual amounts required by the eighteen national galleries. The sum increased annually thereafter.

CEMA’s exhibitions were circulated to public buildings according to a philosophy similar to that already established by a series of displays inaugurated in 1934 called ‘Art for the People’—the original idea for which came from the British Institute of Adult Education (BIAE). Their motives were benevolent if patrician: ‘Our chief object has been to ‘expose’ people to art, simply to put them in contact with really good pictures and hope that they will catch the infection.’ The main purpose was to counteract the centralization of arts provision because in the provinces there existed negligible art activity and exhibition opportunity, the BIAE considering even major regional galleries to be second rate. Four ‘Art for the People’ exhibitions toured the country each year, often to places without art galleries. A lecturer who helped visitors understand modern work of a kind they might not have encountered before accompanied these shows. Provision increased to twelve shows a year under CEMA, whose intent was summarized as ‘the best for the most’. In its turn, Government believed that if circulating exhibitions bolstered morale, the tiny sums involved were well spent. Surprisingly large numbers attended these shows: half a million alone in 1942 saw thirty travelling displays. 

Later in the war, as works from national galleries emerged from secure store, there were historical shows, but the bulk comprised mainly recent work by British artists of a ‘modernistic’ persuasion whom the art establishment wished to assist and promote. Selection proved a tricky issue. Debates centred on the stylistic balance between the traditional and the experimental. The prevalence in touring exhibitions of the avant-garde was, in 1944, the subject of a correspondence in The Times. Conservative artists, including Royal Academicians, accused CEMA organizers of ‘subversion’. So, already, even at this infancy of state funding, there was perceived to be an unfair bias towards art that was unfamiliar and even potentially off-putting for most audiences.

It would seem that a pathological condition commonly exists among those wishing to promote recent visual arts to the uninitiated. A religious devotion to the esoteric and the flagrantly new drives a compulsion to convert others. And nothing can stop them. Like sect leaders, or drug pushers, victims of this mentality want everyone to be infected with their own addiction to the more rarefied reaches of ‘the cutting edge’, which they are convinced has greater innate validity than any old style. A desire to introduce neophytes to work that will probably mean nothing to them (mainly because, at least more recently, it doesn’t mean anything in the first place) is ingrained in these evangelicals. Thus the academic conservatism of the 19th century Salon has been gradually overturned in the 20th century and replaced with the psychology that only innovation and ‘progress’ (Fry called it ‘vital art’) is desirable and worth support. In the 21st century this partisan thinking has become lore and adherence to it is the sine qua non of any career in the visual arts.

From Fry to Keynes and Kenneth Clark one senses an urgency among establishment supporters of Modernism to make up for lost time. In their defence they appreciated what others missed, and their insight in supporting experimenters became a template for future art bureaucrats. Early sympathizers with this alternative mindset were described as ‘going Fry’. These highly influential individuals shouldn’t however be blamed for recent extravagant excesses. They were operating before the arrival of public funding threw its weight behind marginal ideas and turned them into establishment thinking. Fry, Keynes and Clark saw it as their duty to help succour careers that might wither without critical and financial support. Fry and Keynes were, however, defending styles that still operated within roughly conventional limits and both were dead well before their tendencies were used to justify the current anarchy. Clark, on the other hand, survived into more indulgent times in which his form of connoisseurship would play no part and even provoke sneers. There were limits to his tolerance. He might have bought thirty drawings and six sculptures from a young Henry Moore and stood guarantor to Graham Sutherland’s overdraft but he dismissed abstraction—as Fry had before him—and other more bizarre areas of Modernism as dead ends, and wasn’t afraid to say so.

The flag of novelty for its own sake was carried forward by others. What had begun as the project of assertive lone mavericks would become establishment philosophy. Telling everyone else what to like—this was a common criticism of know-all Clark—is now part of the job description. Art bureaucrats are expected to be progressives, and never conservatives, with the result that a mass audience has been left trailing so far behind it shows not an atom of desire to catch up. As far as the state is concerned a diet of novelty is all there is, and it’s all you’re going to get whether you like it or not. Despite his antipathies, Clark was sufficiently tolerant of novelties meaningless to him to preside over the Arts Council between 1953 and 1960 when its travelling exhibitions were estimably omnivorous in the stylistic variety of work they circulated. Indeed, one can look back to Clark’s period of authority as the last golden age in which all styles were promoted equally.

What happens today is only an extreme version of what has always been an in-born instinct in Modernism’s apostles. It was certainly the case with both ‘Art for the People’ and CEMA’s efforts, where illustrating and explaining developments in Modern Art were among the principal motives in the selection of their exhibitions. From the beginning of Government subsidy in the visual arts, therefore, there has been a resistance among art bureaucrats to giving innately conservative audiences what they might feel comfortable looking at. Selectors have always preferred forcing viewers outside their comfort zone. That audiences must be ‘challenged’ has become a sort of commandment, a battle cry even. Public resistance to specialist enthusiasms in art has remained an enduring subject of bafflement to such believers. In 1934 Fry had expressed his frustration: ‘The vast majority of mankind is aesthetically damned, and damned not for want of opportunity or goodwill, but by predestination.’ And as long ago as 1930—a Depression year in which UK unemployment increased 10%—the economist Keynes had asked himself: ‘Why does the general public find it so extraordinarily difficult to get over its reserves and hesitations towards contemporary art?’ The obvious answer to this question would never have occurred to someone living in so rarefied a ‘bloomsberry’ world as the one Keynes inhabited.

The 1946 charter of the Arts Council includes in its purposes: ‘… developing a greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the fine arts exclusively, and in particular to increase the accessibility of the fine arts to the public throughout Our Realm, to improve the standard of execution of the fine arts …’ Lists of the Arts Council’s exhibitions during its first thirty years fulfil these aims. They offered a varied menu of classical and nouvelle cuisine courtesy of a steadily increasing annual grant from the Treasury. This had started in 1946 with £235,000 (£6 million in today’s money) and rose quickly—recent accounts show £74 million is allocated to the visual arts.

Coincident with the establishment of the Arts Council and the novelty of public funding emerged other transformations. The clean slate of the post-’45 peace encouraged social change. A desire to smash class privileges was everywhere fermenting. In visual art the upheaval was most immediately evident in education, where old teaching priorities were gradually jettisoned in favour of a supposedly liberated outlook. What we now call youth culture soon became institutionalized. ‘New’ and ‘Young’ became buzzwords: ‘Young Contemporaries’ exhibitions were inaugurated at the ICA in 1949 while ‘New Generation’ shows began at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1964. Modern abstract styles imported from abroad, mainly from the USA (they were later discovered to have been subsidized by the CIA), were turning student heads with their ambition, scale and effrontery. A sea change was apparent, and art rapidly distanced itself even further from what the majority were comfortable with. Art changed much more quickly than the ability of general audiences to keep up.

Also after the war previously stuffy institutions had awoken to an unfamiliar dawn and were trying to keep abreast of advances in order to appear ‘with it’. Driven by guilt and criticism all now embraced ‘progress’. During the 1950s the Tate, which had been slated by supporters of the avant-garde for missing opportunities to acquire cheaply important Modernist pictures, began to jettison its behind-the-times image by buying the works of younger experimental artists. The average age of artists from whom pieces were acquired for the national collection dropped dramatically during this period to below 35. In 1963 the Tate bought a Pop Art painting from Anthony Donaldson—the only one they ever purchased by this artist as it turned out—while he was still a student at the Slade. Artists no longer had to wait on fame. It might arrive straight from college, where the degree show became increasingly important for establishing instant reputations. Attending a degree show in 1998, Doris Saatchi would confess to being ‘appalled at how careerist the artists had become’, which was rich coming from her since it was she and her former husband Charles Saatchi who had contributed significantly to encouraging such conceit and calculated ambition in the first place.

As an indication of the opposing traditions in education and thinking from 1950 onwards, the words of two distinguished art teachers working during this critical period give a flavour of the time. Keith Vaughan, a painter and teacher at Camberwell and the Slade, said during an interview with Bryan Robertson in 1961:

I don’t share their [the students’] automatic rejection of the standards of the last 500 years which seems too much like a sort of Dada-classicism. I question what often seems to be an underlying assumption that disturbing or disagreeable looking objects are necessarily more vital and true than pleasant and agreeable ones.

In the other (victorious) corner, Harry Thubron, a trailblazing architect of new thinking in art education since the early ’50s and a zealous reformer, wrote in Studio International (July/August, 1968) just as the character of education was about to be changed irrevocably by the subsuming of art schools into polytechnics:

The present state of being has evolved through new ideas being grafted on to the old order, allowing far too many of the outworn attitudes and practices to remain. These static and linear concepts and attitudes are in fact dead but linger on to dog the system, largely from the fear the idea of change engenders. Now is the time for uprooting and planting anew. The idea of Polytechnic allows this, perhaps the last chance for some time… The central unit should be aimed at establishing a milieu in which students ‘learn how to learn for themselves’ and at the same time allowing both staff and students to abolish and select their own tradition. We would abolish the Fine Art departments as they exist generally, in both name and aim, replacing them with Environmental-Light-Sound-Movement-Workshops, the motivation of which was the externalization, examination and control of phenomena. The essential essence will be a building of bridges between differing disciplines. This will demand an ‘open’ system … it could be that we can establish a milieu that allows a ‘culture’ to grow and develop.

Around 1990 the disparate threads that would weave together to form State Art began getting closer together. All that was needed was a catalyst. Charles Saatchi had begun to buy in bulk works by the so-called ‘young British artists’ (yBas) before they had any reputation. Serota, meanwhile, who had arrived as Tate Director in 1988 having spent all his previous career working either directly or indirectly for the Arts Council, oversaw a revision to the Turner Prize, which returned following a brief hiatus in 1991 with an agenda to promote the avant-garde at all costs. Also in 1991 Serota convened a secret committee, for which no minutes were taken (a discovery made when I asked to see them), whose job was to suggest ways of generating greater coverage in the media for contemporary art. The existence of this was later divulged by Jay Jopling, founder of White Cube gallery, who was invited to attend and who had a similar interest in manufacturing reputations for his artists, nearly always by controversial or sensationalist means. On the grounds that all publicity fuelled the fire, it was decided to lure newspapers, especially the easily provoked tabloids, into covering offensive or otherwise shocking work. 

Over the next decade this process became a masterclass in media manipulation. The climax of this modus operandi was the tremendous fuss caused by the inclusion of a portrayal of Myra Hindley made using a stencil of a child’s handprint by Marcus Harvey (one of Jay Jopling’s artists) which featured in Sensation, an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 comprising works owned by Charles Saatchi. The ensuing rumpus, which led to the picture being twice vandalized on the first day of public opening, was manufactured by the issuing of a press release in advance of opening stating that this particular picture was to be included. This was a deliberate invitation for all and sundry to be offended. In PR terms it was a brilliant example of ‘Light the touch paper and stand back’. (The notoriety generated—four Royal Academicians resigned because of Myra’s inclusion—no doubt helped when, soon afterwards, Saatchi sold the picture for ten times what he’d paid Jopling for it to an American commodities trader who had, co-incidentally, worked for the company who invented ‘junk bonds’ and, embarrassingly, were the first sponsors of the Turner Prize. It’s a small world.)

Thus, three people with overlapping interests fertilized the State Art egg. One had unstoppable authority in the most influential national gallery for recent art; another had cash sufficient to buy market position for what he bought and sold; and the other was a dealer with a need to create reputations for artists whose works alone could never by themselves have justified such pre-eminence. Serota showed work bought and exhibited by Saatchi, who in return donated works to Serota (and also—in the case of some works he had been unable to sell—to the Arts Council), while Saatchi also bought works from Jopling who himself worked with Serota and then afterwards supplied winners for the Turner Prize, the annual stunt chaired by … Serota. It was beautifully circular. And it ran like the German railways.

On currently available evidence, it would be putting it too strongly to claim that a conspiracy created State Art. The ground had been well prepared before 1990 and the momentum in education, exhibition and collection was already bound in that direction. But the imago of a policy with a distinct personality did suddenly emerge, following which only Conceptual Art would now matter. This marked the final nail in the coffin for traditional methods of art teaching, at least in the public sector where fine art education in any traditional sense has virtually ceased to exist.

It soon seemed to outsiders as though the yBas were the only artists in existence. No one else got a look in. Newspapers were full of their extra-curricular antics. As Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, wasn’t wrong when he characterized the new mood: ‘Art is money-sexy-social-climbing-fantastic.’ So effective was this concerted hungering for novelty that the avant-garde quickly became that contradiction-in-terms, a part of the Establishment; in short, as dull an official academy as any preceding it. The ethos was even celebrated in Downing Street under the rubric ‘Cool Britannia’. But this was a new sort of strictly capitalist avant garde, one where artists no longer starved in garrets but marketed branded merchandise, advertised luxury goods and bought massive country estates.

Another new phenomenon was required to explain what was otherwise visually incomprehensible. Unlike previous academies where the quality of work was more or less obvious to anyone looking at it, and to which everyone had access because it was at least figurative imagery, we had now to be told what we were looking at, what it meant, and, finally, how very important it was. We were often told there was more there than met the eye. Except there wasn’t. What was so often described as ‘deceptively simple’ in order to disarm cynics was, in fact, just simple. As the American art critic Hilton Kramer put it: ‘The more minimum the art the more maximum the explanation.’ Hyperbole became the lingua franca of explanation.

Without any recognized criteria for judging what was there everything we saw became, on the face of it, as important as everything else. If official verdicts concerning quality were accepted it was only because they were ex cathedra and originated from those in authority who, it could reasonably be assumed, must know what they were talking about if only because of their regulation black uniforms, fancy titles, gift for baffling periphrastics, and accumulated medals and titles dispensed by the Queen. In fact, as we have discovered, they were making it up as they went along. Unless the artist had told these ‘experts’ what was being signified they had no more clue what a work was about than the rest of us. They swallowed artists’ statements, which had evolved to become as important as the work itself, like children greedy for sweets. One week a pile of stones could be about mortality, the next a comment on climate change and the spoiling of the environment, and the week after that it might represent the most significant development in landscape art since Constable. It was hard to keep up. Sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi spoke for many when he confessed about one such ‘masterpiece’, ‘It just looked like a pile of stones to me’.

The Turner Prize has now lasted as long as it took Modern Art to exhaust a score of distinctive ‘isms’ at the beginning of the 20th century. A quarter of a century afterwards and we’ve not moved on from the yBas. The system is still unsuccessfully trying to crank out more of the same. This flagship State Art annual prize has become inbred to uselessness. Winners are now so insignificant that no one except those who chose them can remember their names from one year to the next. Can you name who won the Turner Prize the year before last? Well can you? Or indeed anyone who has won in the last five or even ten years?

An on-message Arts Council, which had been hand-in-glove with Serota since the early ’70s, was in a perfect position to ensure the success and ubiquity of State Art because over the years they had accumulated an impressive number of their own galleries through which they might promote work they liked. And they provide nothing short of a complete service, for they even fund art magazines with neither circulation nor visibility whose purpose is to review their own exhibitions. 

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), funded from 1968 by the Arts Council, was started in 1947 by Modernist artists specifically to show recent art—unquestionably a much-needed development. However, it was a function which became watered down when the Council began funding other galleries, many of them also in London, which duplicated the ICA’s job. What had begun as a peripheral but necessary concern, namely the fostering of the avant garde, had become mainstream. The Hayward Gallery opened in 1968, the Serpentine in 1970. The Whitechapel, which had existed since 1901, was directed for a crucial decade in the ’80s by Serota, one of the Council’s own placemen. The change in the character of exhibition programmes of these galleries between then and now is significant, and reflects the altered shift in what the Arts Council was prepared to support. At first all except the ICA staged a wide range of exhibitions, often selected by distinguished art historians and critics. I know from my own experience that these were places those interested in art history from the Renaissance to the present had to visit. For example, in its first year the Hayward staged exhibitions of Matisse, Nolde and Van Gogh. In the second year it was Caro, Frescoes from Florence, Pop Art, Claude Lorrain and a thematic show including Barry Flanagan and the abstract painter Ian Stephenson. Compare this to the last ten years when the same gallery has shown work only by contemporary artists, usually foreign ones, who hardly anyone can have heard of. The last important historical survey at the Hayward was in 2001, drawings by Goya, one of the most engrossing exhibitions ever staged there—the unforgettable 1973 show of Cézanne’s watercolours (which followed Salvator Rosa!) ran it close. In its early days, the Hayward provided an exemplary service in which ‘difficult’ contemporaries—Dieter Rot with his putrefying food—rubbed shoulders with, say, the Impressionists in London. Under State Art the Hayward is now no longer a place one feels it necessary to visit. 

Those dubbing themselves ‘curators’, a coinage now utterly debased by overuse, select exhibitions of exclusively new work. To those of my generation, ‘curator’ meant a serious scholar, a specialist worthy of respect and an author of original contributions to a recherché subject. Now everyone calls himself a curator, a title that has become merely a fancy synonym for ‘selector’. There is, however, a worthless ‘professional’ qualification for these ‘curators’ of the moment. The Arts Council pays the Royal College of Art £200,000 a year towards its ‘Curating Contemporary Art’ course (which, coincidentally, was headed until recently by Mrs Serota)—and by ‘contemporary art’ they don’t mean all contemporary art but only the bits State Art likes.

Apart from the venues mentioned above there are now in London other galleries displaying only the Arts Council’s preferred ‘Challenging Contemporary Art’. These are Camden Arts Centre, Matt’s Gallery, South London Art Gallery, Chisenhale Studios and the non-gallery organization Artangel. Their combined subsidy (from the Arts Council) in 2014 was around £7 million a year. It’s hard to give a precise figure because, one suspects, the Council make it deliberately difficult to find these things out by rendering their accounts impenetrable. In 2013 I investigated the recent funding history of the Serpentine Gallery, which frequently and inexplicably shows the world’s wealthiest artists whose own high profile commercial galleries have their more extensive and lavish premises only a couple of miles away in Mayfair. I discovered that on top of its £1.3 million a year grant it has also received £6.8 million in the form of twelve—twelve!—Lottery awards given during the National Lottery’s 20-year history. We are referring here to a former tearoom in Hyde Park. By the way, the Serpentine is a charity which, at the time of writing, has two directors both of whom earn more than the director of Tate Britain. It was a misguided decision, probably born of ignorance as to their true motives, when the Arts Council were given authority to disperse lottery funds in 1994, because in the visual arts this ensured that their existing favoured clientèle would be well looked after. Yes, even the National Lottery is a reliable backer of State Art, courtesy of its Siamese twinning with the Arts Council.


State Art is an invention of my lifetime. I’ve watched it evolve. It has successfully infiltrated and now controls every corner of contemporary art, funding only what it deems challenging, conceptual, minimal etc. It is an outrageous travesty of what public funding for art should be. No artist should be excluded from assistance simply by virtue of a stylistic path, or the use of a medium, which officialdom deems misguided. State Art discriminates against any traditional styles, favours the contemporary over the historical, and colludes in a sleazy manner—ref. the Serpentine Gallery above—with the marketplace. It has contributed to the ruin of the Fine Art college system, which now teaches practically nothing but the transparent pretence of intellectualism, and produces ‘artists’ fit only for the State Art treadmill. Artists excluded by State Art, a very large majority, must fend for themselves. Some do this successfully against the odds: but they will be denied acclaim, they won’t be collected by the state, they won’t have books published about them by mainstream publishers, and they will be condemned to having their work reviewed only rarely because print and broadcast media are also on message with State Art. 

All official institutions are now contributors to this closed shop and their very survival is made contingent on continued adherence to State Art diktats because in 2016 subsidy is effectively accompanied by blackmail. Apostasy means poverty.

The influence of this monotonous domination on art students cannot be overestimated. If all students see or are encouraged to look at is one approach only, then the results will be as predictably dull as is now everywhere evident—consider the wretched thinness of recent Turner Prizes, British Art Shows and New Contemporaries. And if their tutors have also been reared under this system, the teaching of nothing becomes ancestral, the perpetuation of inadequacy stultifying. The result of this bankrupt process is disastrous for those who don’t make it, for they have no saleable craft on which to fall back. A distinguished writer and artist anonymously wrote the following observation in The Jackdaw:

Of the many criticisms I could make of what I have seen of the current state of art education in this country… the first is the lack of instruction in fundamental skills. A talented young man I know recently graduated from Winchester College of Art with a first class degree in ‘fine art’. He had specialised in sculpture. He proudly showed me his card, which he had printed with his name and address and the words ‘Artist and Sculptor’. He cannot draw, paint, carve or model and he knows practically nothing about the history of art. He now earns his living by washing up surgical instruments at the hospital where his father is a surgeon. He has no prospects, but he is slightly better off than most of his fellow art-students, who are on the dole.

The cause of my personal animosity towards State Art is that I feel cheated. It has censored and manipulated what I have been permitted to see and therefore to know. I’ve spent most of my adult life not being able to view in public galleries or collections works by artists, old and young, that would have interested me, and many others too, had we all been vouchsafed the opportunity.

All I can do is await the day when a Minister has the guts to tell the Arts Council to close down its visual art department and replace it with something fairer, less discriminatory and with a policy supportive of work by all good artists wherever they inhabit what is a miraculously diverse artistic spectrum. The problem hitherto is that culture ministers are uncritical and subservient. Having invited me to his office, an intelligent arts minister once told me that he sympathized with many of my criticisms but that the Arts Council ‘is, you must understand, as untouchable as any sacred cow’. But why?  

… Nothing has changed in 25 years, which, coincidentally, corresponds almost exactly with the autocratic regime of Serota at the Tate and his Age of the Turner Prize.