[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]
There are plenty of British institutions which, having developed out of some unrepeatable melange of historical contingency, accident and the arbitrary whims of those long dead, and having acquired over the intervening years the inimitable patina of fond familiarity, are now, in their haphazard, unselfconscious perfection, the wonder of rationalists, systematisers and foreigners more generally. One thinks in this context of our great unwritten constitution, our legal system, the structures of our established church, even the rules of cricket.
And then — well, there is Tate Britain.
Not a pretty picture
The history of Tate Britain can be read as the story of many successive attempts to sort out a perceived problem, where the unifying theme is that all too often, the attempted solutions just make everything worse. The first such problem was the fact that the National Gallery, founded in 1824, tended to treat British art as the dowdy poor relation of its Italian, French and Low Countries holdings. Private bequests of British art to the National Gallery — or to South Kensington, Dulwich and regional collections — were all very well. So were the regular, enjoyable and sometimes even productive displays of contemporary art at the Royal Academy. As the century wore on, however — and as other countries began to showcase their own national art ever more aggressively, almost as if making claims for their generalised validity as nation-states — the cries for a purely British collection became increasingly difficult to ignore.
So it was that in 1897, built on the site of Millbank Penitentiary through the generosity of a Liberal autodidact sugar-magnate, the National Gallery of British Art — or, as it everyone had taken to calling it within a couple of months, the Tate Gallery — first opened its doors.
Even from the first, the Tate’s mission was a bit confused. In order to avoid clashing with the National Gallery, it undertook to show contemporary British art — but what was to happen once the new art grew old? No one was quite sure. And this was a problem that continued to avoid solution. Instead, what followed, for about a century, was a complex narrative of directors often incompetent and sometimes frankly deranged; administrative arrangements combining eye-watering complexity with incoherence; a lot of money frittered away not always to great effect; the acquisition of a strange and gappy body of work which included enough non-British art to thwart the founders’ intentions whilst at the same time never adding up to anything like a decent survey collection; floods and bombing raids; feuds and follies; Munnings’ half-cut after-dinner oratory and Carl Andre’s ‘bricks’; and, perhaps inevitably given all the rest, a confused and problematic relationship with the Royal Academy, National Gallery, the Treasury, commercial galleries, publishers, patrons, trustees, civil servants, critics, artists and the viewing public. If, in other words, the late 20th century Tate had not existed, it seems safe to assume that no one would have been in any rush to invent it, at least in its contemporary form.
But aren’t the old ones are supposed to be the best ones?
All of which discouraging stuff came to a head in 1997, a century after the Tate was founded. This was the year in which Nicholas Serota oversaw the quickie no-fault divorce between the two halves of the Tate’s operations — its collection of increasingly historic British art and its collection of international modern art — and the subsequent decampment of Tate Modern to its glamorous bachelor pad south of the river, while Tate Britain brooded mournfully on the old Millbank site. Tate Modern’s star-studded, hysterically-hyped launch in 2000 may yet prove to have been the swan-song of Cool Britannia. Meanwhile, Tate Britain was — what?
Alas, the sloppy dialectics practiced by the stupider sort of cultural critic meant that if Tate Modern, as visited by Kate Moss et al, was new and hot and exciting, then by rights Tate Britain had to be old, frumpy and — most culpably of all, apparently, for a major cultural institution — ‘not sexy’. But the saddest thing about this perception was less its intrinsic unfairness than the reaction it seemed to occasion within the institution itself. Vesti la guibba! Like a bereft Other Half putting on a brave show after being dumped for someone younger, Tate Britain began to commit embarrassing acts of would-be trendiness that in fact just reeked of desperation: the commissioning of a not very festive Christmas tree from Tracy Emin, say, or showing video art of absolutely cosmic dreariness, or simply failing to see that the increasingly silly Turner Prize really didn’t suit it any more.
The result of all this was a perverse situation where British art from every era was attracting interest in seminar-rooms and sale-rooms here and abroad, but where the institution responsible for displaying the last five centuries’ worth of British art seemed rather dismissive of any works older than the memories of its most junior curators. What, then, was to be Tate Britain’s equivalent of Botox, collagen lip injections and a slavish addiction to Fabric? One solution was to emphasise present-day art at the expense of the older stuff, so that the 1960s, for instance, would loom much larger than the entire sixteenth century. Another was to ‘sex up’ exhibitions with references to nudity, celebrity and so forth, as if such rhetoric were central to the reasons why the ordinary punter should wish to spend his or her time contemplating art. Finally, another related, yet slightly more subtle approach involved re-casting the older work in terms more acceptable to contemporary preoccupations. Why attempt a straight-forward, chronological presentation, when pictures could be re-framed in terms of gender, race, class or whatever sub-Marxist vocabulary came to mind? Why fulfil the role of a useful old text-book when the role of trendy, tie-less, Groucho Club-haunting media don was there for the taking?
Such questionable expedients have, however inadvertently, been facilitated by the generosity of BP. The relevant grant, which dates back to 1990, funds the periodic re-hanging of the Tate’s displays of British art. The most recent such re-hanging was officially launched recently, with the usual well-orchestrated if generally pianissimo media fanfare.
Now, here’s a confession for you. Tory distrust of change notwithstanding, I always view these events with a degree of excitement, even enthusiasm. For in principal, there is a lot to be said for regular re-hanging. For one thing, human nature dictates that familiarity breeds, if not contempt exactly, then a certain lack of interest — whereas to shake up the familiar at least invites an element of freshness and engagement. And then there’s the sad fact that for reasons of space, much of the Tate’s collection lives in storage. What wonders will emerge from the vaults this time? Finally, there is always the happy possibility that a different sort of hang will throw up some new relationship between artists, some new revelation about influences or innovations, some new flash of understanding, whether at the historical level or at a purely aesthetic one. The rewards are, then, at least, potentially, there for the taking. So as I made my way down to Millbank, I did so hoping that on the way back, my mental map of British art would somehow have been improved with better standards of detail, accuracy and complexity — or, at the very least, that the new hang would be better than the old, which was not without its irritations.
So it’s sad to report that the 2005 displays are, with a handful of exceptions, rather disappointing. The first problem is one of coherence. The decision, more than a decade ago, to reject a faceless, chronological, would-be authoritative scheme of organisation in favour of personalised, rather subjective, thematic ones carries with it a heavy burden of implications. Not least, it puts great pressure on curators to make their chosen themes work, both intellectually and aesthetically. The trick here is to find strong, important paintings that fit in with the theme — and it’s not an easy trick to pull off. This sort of display scheme also demands something by way of shared approach, shared tone and shared assumptions about the interpretive capabilities (or otherwise) of the average viewer. Otherwise the result is a bit too much like some sort of nightmarish art-historical shopping-mall, its various concessions all waging style-wars against each other, the upmarket boutiques wedged in uncomfortably amongst their more demotic neighbours, the competition more confusing than enabling for the poor wretched consumer. Finally, a degree of enthusiasm for the works in question is, while hard to measure objectively, all-important. For if the curators’ sympathies don’t really run alongside the art in any evident way — shared delight in the subject-matter, admiration for the technical qualities of the work, a sympathetic understanding of the period in which the work was produced — the result invariably has something sour and sneery about it. Well, enough people have a poor opinion of British art already, without Tate Britain struggling to make them value it still less.
Yet as far as these issues are concerned, the present rehanging is all over the place. There are some rooms — and it’s worth stating this immediately — where the commentary is attentive to the subtleties of contemporary art history while at the same time genuinely helpful at the level of helping the viewer to understand and appreciate the art itself. “William Blake and John Flaxman” is one of these, “Edward Wadsworth” another. I learned a lot from each, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
But there are others where the wall-texts read like outtakes from My First Big Pop-Up Book of Arnold Hauser. In “The British Landscape”, for instance, faced with Stubbs’ formally brilliant, emotionally engaging The Reapers (1785), we are cautioned by the curator that ‘This picture greatly idealises physical labour …’ Leave aside, out of charity, the fact that most viewers probably could have worked this out for themselves. Since, actually, most pre-modern painting idealised pretty much everything — and, indeed, since the most gritty documentary footage of rural life in our own times rarely ventures out without its own raucous little brood of tiresome polemical grievances — one struggles to work out what the point of the curatorial comment could possibly be. Should we like Stubbs more because he painting something other than literal reality? Or like him less? Or what? If there was the germ of a worthwhile comment here, it got lost somewhere between the banality of its expression and the superficial level of the overall discussion. And the sorrow here is that the painting in question one of the greatest works by — to my mind, anyway, if not that of Prof. Christie Davies — one of Britain’s greatest artists.
The dog that isn’t allowed to bark
Meanwhile, nearby hangs another striking painting by Stubbs, Ringwood, A Hound. Here the commentary goes on for lines and lines, yet fails to mention one central feature relating to the reasons why someone might wish to paint, or commission, or indeed preserve a painting of this particular creature. Was Ringwood, well, a domestic pet? Or was this handsome painting simply some sort of ironic send-up of the portraiture conventions of its own time? Alas, though — and despite an excitable reference to ‘blood sports’ (not ‘field sports’) on a general panel nearby — that shocking four-letter word, ‘H-U-N-T’, may actually be one outrage too far for present-day Tate curators. It wouldn’t do, would it, to admit that the art of the countryside, exactly at the points where it seemed to give most respect and esteem to individual quadrupeds, is also the art of a hunting tradition dating back to the dawn of mankind? Or that “The British Landscape” (the theme of the room) would be hard to imagine without reference to the field? In the event, though, the effort to escape the world-view of a certain sort of metropolitan liberal elite never really gets off the ground. We end up learning far more about the blind spots of at least a few of the curators than we do about the art of the period.
Never mind. One might be tempted, at this point, to fall with some gratitude upon that familiar refuge of the cultural conservative hemmed in by flawed and foolish commentary, and to advise all visitors simply to ignore the comments and admire the art. But this raises another problem. The hang itself is, alas, startlingly ugly.
What’s wrong? Where do we start? The pictures are hung far too low — and since I’m only 5 feet 7 inches tall, if I had to look down a few times too often, heaven help the taller type of arts enthusiast! Worse still, the intervals between the works seem completely arbitrary, as if little human agency had been involved in their hanging. Given how well the recent Reynolds exhibition was presented, for instance, it’s amazing that no one seems to have noticed how bad all this looks.
Put out more paintings
Most regrettable of all, though, is the fact that that the works are hung very sparsely indeed. I’ve seen galleries in Eastern Europe where the ghostly marks of missing paintings — rectangles of faint colour punctuating the faded brocade on the walls — hint at losses through war, pillage, expropriation, institutional poverty and a catalogue of natural disasters, which at the same time give a greater sense of generosity in their hanging-schemes than does the present-day Tate Britain. What’s happened? The curators may feel that giving paintings a lot of (oddly proportioned) wall-space allows them to ‘breathe’ — this is, I think, one of those sub-Greenbergian tics still afflicting plenty of people who can hardly hear the words ‘formal values’ without coming out in a rash — to which I can only say that the paintings at the National Gallery, the Louvre, Dulwich, the Wallace Collection and so forth all seem to make do with the smaller amounts of wall-space surrounding them. And then there’s the practical point that if there were less space between paintings, more of the collection could be kept on show. All of which raises a few larger points about the purpose of Tate Britain, to which we’ll return shortly.
In passing, though, it’s worth singling out one of the sadder rooms, where there was much evidence of a good concept gone mysteriously, lamentably wrong. The room in question is the one titled “Romantic Painting In Britain”. Here, in a long gallery of typically over-the-top Duveen-funded proportions, the paintings had, up to a point, been double-hung — but apparently, by someone unwilling or unable to enter fully into the conventions, let alone the spirit, of an early 19th century hang. How, though, can that be possible, after the Courtauld’s brilliant Art On The Line show of 2001-02? Here, though, a few paintings drifted pointlessly above their marginally larger peers, as vast acres of pink space separated each work from its nearest neighbours. There was none of the exciting jostling, the competitive brio, the serendipitous cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions that ought to be shocking, delighting and amusing the crowds. There was no real additional information being generated about the context in which these paintings were meant to be viewed. The hang itself could have said something about how Romantic painting differed from what came before and after — but it didn’t. The opportunity came and went.
And it was a pity, because as well as the usual stars of the collection — great Constables, Gainsboroughs, Turners — there were some fascinating, even surprising works on show, both in this room and in others. It was good, for instance, to see Hogarth as the creator of unfashionably Baroque, ‘foreign-looking’ paintings in the room titled “In the Grand Manner” as well as the author of his more familiar works; good to see such splendid work by the still-underrated William Dobson in a “Civil War and Commonwealth” room (where, in fairness, the commentary could have been a good deal worse); easy to be stopped in one’s tracks by stray marvels such as Holman Hunt’s Cornfield at Ewell. These are the kind of thrills that Tate Britain can, and ought to deliver, breaking through the familiarity of British art and showing us how wrong we are in those moments where, consciously or not, we dismiss it as dull, invariably derivative or second-rate. It’s only a pity that there are not more such experiences to be found at Tate Britain right now, and that the heavy haze of irritations, slights and misjudgements does so much to take the shine off them whenever they occur. British art is, at its best, brilliant. Surely a better case can be made for it than this?
Why it matters
All this criticism may sound heavy-handed and a bit unnecessary — rather like firing off a cross 2,500-word letter to The New York Review of Books because you don’t really like the way your maiden aunt has redecorated the second guest bedroom — but there are, in fact, important issues at stake.
The first concerns the level of esteem expressed towards Britain’s art history by one of the major national institutions charged with conserving and displaying examples of historic British art. Put simply, there are reasons for thinking that recent or contemporary art is being ‘foregrounded’ (this hideous word is, sadly, so appropriate to the whole project described here that one can hardly avoid employing it) at the expense of older work. And yes, I know — this is a jeremiad dating back to the great days of Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters — but as is the way of jeremiads, repetition in no way softens its tone or curtails its terrible urgency.
One sort of evidence for this tinkering with priorities can be found — where else? — in an >interview that Sir Nicholas Serota recently granted to The Guardian. Many of his pronouncements were notable chiefly for their eye-watering banality:
”One of the most important things that has been happening in British art over the past 25 years is the way it has been steadily infused by artists who were perhaps not born here, but are working here, or perhaps who are second generation — such as Mona Hatoum, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Veronica Ryan,” he said.
Presumably the novelty of this situation would have astonished older British artists such as Holbein, Gheeraerts, Eworth, Mytens, Van Dyck, Hollar, Zoffany, Benjamin West, Sickert, Sargent, Wyndham Lewis, Epstein, Auerbach, Kitaj and Freud, to name but a few, and is in addition a good reason for assuming that the art of the future will be far more culturally complex, exciting and relevant than the art of the past. Happy days! But Sir Nicholas has broader ambitions for the institution entrusted to his care (and it’s quite clear he’s talking about Tate Britain at this point every bit as much as Tate Modern):
Sir Nicholas told the Guardian that in the future the Tate should be dramatically recast to integrate “graphics, film, photography and performance. Visual culture is so much more complex than painting or sculpture.”The big idea,” he said, “is that the old hierarchies between painting and sculpture and other forms of expression have evaporated.
“Artists are reflecting on the culture around them — club culture, or whatever it is — and the institution needs to reflect that in the way it shows, presents and buys art.”
Again, once one has recovered from the breathtaking revelation that artists are ‘reflecting on the culture around them’ — clearly an improvement on whatever solipsistic malingering they were getting up to in the past — one is left pondering the practical implications of Sir Nicholas’ remarks. Does this sound like the words of a man who burns with a desire to fill in the blank spots in his institution’s collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century works? Who wakes every morning pondering how best to fix the gaps in the early twentieth century collection? Or, alternatively, does it sound like the sort of man who wants to spend £600,000 on recent work by Tate trustee Chris Ofili, presented in a purpose-build ‘architectural space’ (aka ‘partitioned area with over-emphatic lighting’)? Doubtless Victoria Miro, at any rate, must think he’s getting the balance about right.
Less spiritual than a roomful of monkeys
A word, though, in passing, about Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room, the Tate’s acquisition of which would perhaps have attracted more notice, had Mark Quinn’s grotesquely out-of-scale, slimy-looking Alison Lapper Pregnant not distracted the attention of the small minority who care about these things — and which has, even so, attracted some well-aimed criticism from the even smaller minority willing to speak out against polite consensus.
Now, as it happens — and as much as some readers of this publication may find this admission alarming — I am not someone who thinks that everything Ofili produces is nasty, attention-grabbing, sacreligous rubbish. He may not be the most profound artist ever, but at least at the time of his big 1998 Serpentine show, there was more than a little charm, playfulness and originality there to be seen in his work, so that one came out of the gallery into Kensington Gardens slightly happier, less earnest and more aware of the glitter and sparkle that’s there to be found in the world if one makes the effort to look for it. True, it wasn’t the Arena Chapel — but one can’t go through life expecting that level of soul-stirring impact from every passing work of art. I didn’t find Ofili’s use of elephant droppings particularly shocking. I didn’t even find his contribution to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensation’ completely without merit, as unlike so many of his coevals there, he had clearly showed some interest in the aesthetic qualities of his efforts, rather than simply focusing on self-promotion and a desire to annoy. And when he represented Great Britain at the 2003 Venice Biennale, I found the result strangely sensitive to its Venetian surroundings, yet still blessed with a fundamental lightness of touch, a refusal to take itself too seriously. So really, by the standards of conservative art critics anyway, I actually quite like Ofili’s work.
The problem I faced at Tate Britain the other day was, then, less some sort of outrage at the content or presentation of The Upper Room itself, than an increasingly queasy suspicion that the Tate now believes it has acquired, in this work, an Arena Chapel pour nos jours. Some of the claims made for this installation — the phrase ‘profound spiritual qualities’ has been used by the Tate Press Office itself — would almost be funny if they weren’t so, well, wide of the mark.
For in truth, this is just more of the usual Ofili output, arranged slightly differently, with extra added hyperbole. Thirteen of the usual person-sized panels, propped up with the usual elephant dung, have been painted in the usual garish colours and flecked with the usual high-camp glitter. But this time, we are forced to make a short journey down a darkened corridor in order to see the result, which I guess is supposed to remind us of every penitential journey on the way to enlightenment — the way into the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, for instance, or the long journey down to Houston to blink and yawn in the dusky depths of the Rothko Chapel — any anthropology textbook could possibly muster. And once we are in the room, standing amongst these objects, the most striking impressions are those made by the harsh, aggressive lighting, the over-generous spaces between the works, and a generalised impression of pomposity veiling emptiness. Under the circumstances, it would be easy to lose patience with Ofili’s demi-vierge teasing at blasphemy, except that the work just isn’t strong enough to be blasphemous — which is to say, with its rather pointless Christian allusions and total lack of visual charge, it couldn’t possibly hope blaptein anyone’s pheme, except perhaps that of the institution which spent so much to acquire and display it.
But then that’s the thing about Tate Britain’s emphasis right now: all too often, sparkle seems to matter far more than does quality. For instance, in the context of the current rehang, I imagine that the treatment of F. N. Souza, who is given a room of his own, benefited from Sir Nicholas Serota’s self-proclaimed interest in immigrant artists. Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with Souza’s work, it’s far from clear why it should be where it is, displacing work that is both more central to the traditions Tate Britain exists to curate, and also, well, by most standards, simply better. And by the same token, offering John Latham his own large room seems a rather strange decision. We are told by the Tate Britain Press Office that Latham is ‘perhaps one of the most influential figures in post-war British art’, but it is hard to think who, other than the less successful sort of GCSE at student, has been deeply influenced by the facile symbolism of charred books, or of piranhas representing politicians and the press — not that this stopped the Tate from getting into a mini-row with the artist, who was left calling them ‘cowards’ and crying ‘censorship’. My advice to the Tate is this: when you’re engaging in special pleading, stick with dead artists. At least they can’t answer back.
Meanwhile, how many good Sickerts, Spencers, Spears, Sutherlands, Bacons, Weights, Bratbys and so forth are there to be found in the 20th century displays? At Tate Britain, rehangs are, ultimately, a zero sum game — every decision to display a work is, implicitly, a decision not to hang quite a lot of other works. Every decision to purchase a work is, implicitly, a decision not to purchase something else. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the would-be trendiness mentioned above — evident here as a desire to spice up press releases with lots of references to contemporary or otherwise right-on work, to display such work disproportionately on the Tate’s website or to flag it up in interviews to the exclusion of all else — is, in one form or another, governing too many of the decisions at Tate Britain, whether with respect to acquisitions, display or publicity. We can all see what Tate Britain is trying, so desperately, to look like. But isn’t that fundamentally in conflict with what Tate Britain is, and ought to be?
All of which takes us back to the beginning of this essay. The oddities of Tate Britain’s history have bequeathed to it a series of unenviable burdens and sporadically painful paradoxes. Not least, its central responsibility — the care and display of the national collection of British art, 1500-2005 — overlaps, sometimes maddeningly, with those of other institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, regional collections the length and breadth of the land, and perhaps most of all with its old ex, Tate Modern, which of course still has some remit to deal with contemporary British art. (And let’s leave aside, for today, the whole issue of whether Tate Britain actually functions as ‘Tate Britain’ at all, or whether ‘Tate England’ would be more to the point.) Tate Britain’s collection includes masterpieces and irrelevances, curiosities and lacunae, the fruits of vanity and short-sightedness as well as generosity and inspiration. Looking to the future, Tate Britain obviously needs to continue to acquire new art, as well as to make the best of what it possesses already. And it needs to convey the excitement, enthusiasm and expertise that many of its staff virtually radiate in the presence of the art they are charged with displaying and interpreting. No one ever said that running Tate Britain was an enviable job. In some ways it’s a wonder that the place gets things right as often as it does.
Yet in order to overcome its many present-day problems, Tate Britain must, first and foremost, sort out the vexed issues of its own institutional identity. What’s the point of that bijou little jewel-box of a building, perched daintily above the Millbank foreshore, and of its contents? Titillating the jaded sensibilities of London’s gallery-going subculture may seem sometimes like the smart option, even the ‘sexy’ option — but when it comes to pleasing Sarah Kent, attracting the same crowds as a Haunch of Venison private view or, heaven help us, replicating the better club-nights of Ibiza in England’s green and pleasant gallery spaces, someone else is always going to be able to do it better.
In the long run, the wiser strategy may well be to embrace the Tate’s original remit, and try to act a bit more like an old-fashioned, historical, didactic, sometimes even flag-flying art collection — a well-thumbed reference work rather than an over-designed style-mag, as it were. Indeed, the time may have come to bring back more clearly chronological, art-historical displays, to put the emphasis on the strongest works rather than the weirdest novelties, to give space to demonstrably ‘important’ art rather than taking expensive punts on fashion trends that may not in fact wear very well. And embarrassing as it may sound, Tate Britain could well find a role for itself in trying to make a case for the international, ongoing importance of British art — the British art of the past, as well as the present, as the two lines of argument are more closely connected that some at Tate Britain seem to think.
To be fair, of course, there are countless cases in recent history where Tate Britain has done just that — in the excellent Michael Andrews exhibition of 2001, for instance, or even the recent Reynolds show, which is far richer and more rewarding than its slightly silly ‘Creation of Celebrity’ subtitle might imply. And there are also displays that work extremely well, and many generous loans to exhibitions and regional galleries, and much else to praise. But at the same time, as this most recent rehang suggests, there are other moments where Tate Britain seems almost embarrassed by some of its holdings, displays and responsibilities. All too often — and here the parallels with that bereft Other Half, trying to pass herself off as someone much younger and wilder and sillier than she actually is, come once again to mind — too many attempts to camouflage a sagging midriff or insufficient knowledge of grime, instead of obviating the central problem, actually draw attention to it.
Learning to love Tate Britain
My prescription, then, for Tate Britain’s next rehang is drawn less from the language of curatorial professionalism, than from the world of self-help literature. First of all, the apologies have to stop! For isn’t that what Sir Nicholas has been doing? Have another look, if you can bear it, at that Guardian interview. He’s sorry that Tate Britain’s artists are mostly white, male — British, even. He’s sorry that the past wasn’t always as right-on as the present. He’s sorry that Tate Britain’s paintings and sculpture are — well, paintings and sculpture, rather than video installations or performance pieces. He’s sorry Tate Britain is what it is.
But it is what it is, and that’s all there is to it. Here’s the bottom line. Self-pity is not an attractive vice. Like the best of us, Tate Britain has its historic strengths, as well as its flaws and limitations. Well, it should play to its strengths. Its strange collection includes startling gems as well as duds; many of its staff possess not simply great enthusiasm for the material with which they work, but unparalleled expertise too; its building is beautiful if sometimes intractable; it tells a story that no other institution could tell in the same way, and believe it or not, that’s a story that many of us are all too anxious to hear. At the same time, though, it should be quiet about its weaknesses. True, it needs to continue to collect relatively recent art, if only for the sake of its collection a century hence. But here, it should play it cool. It should try to look confident. If Tate Britain is a seriously important institution, surely young, healthy, living artists should run after it, begging to have their donated works included amongst Tate Britain’s collections, rather than vice versa? Surely, to do anything else only smacks of a desperation that is not only slightly embarrassing, but also counter-productive?
Most of all, though, Tate Britain should stop pretending to be the über-trendy thing that it so clearly is not. And anyway, who cares what Tate Modern thinks? Once upon a time — and a very short time ago it was — Tate Modern looked like London’s most exciting art space; these days, it’s a little bit too much like one of 2001’s hot ‘see and be seen’ rendezvous, now fallen out of favour with everyone except those who travel on the basis of out-of-date style guides. Because that’s the curse of trendiness — it always goes off in the end. Whereas true individual style, as any dreary, nannyish, unarguable summary of such things will tell you, never ages much, and self-confidence goes a long way towards being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tate Britain must, in other words, start being itself, and being happy with itself, and must proceed on that basis. For until Tate Britain learns to love itself for what it is, how can it expect the rest of us to follow suit?
Bunny Smedley was co-founder and sometime Arts Editor of electric-review.com.