The British Contemporary Art Scene:

Ominous Cracks are Appearing

Ivan MassowA controversial article has recently appeared in the New Statesman written by the millionaire Labour Party supporter Mr. Ivan Massow (photo r.). Massow has for the past three years been chairman of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (commonly known as the ICA). He remains in this post – at least for the time being - while colleagues assess the extent of the damage inflicted upon them as a result of the courageous critical statements Massow has made in his article.

By Peter Strong

Certainly, his colleagues will be having to decide what to do about him. As it stands Massow's comments are being widely heeded by the general art-conscious public, precisely because the ICA chairmanship is a select position falling within the gift of Britain's mainly government subsidized arts establishment, and the fact that Massow is an intimate member of it. It is true that others, on the outside of the establishment, have been saying for years many of the things Massow is now saying; however, because of the commanding sway of this establishment, theirs has been a daunting struggle: and here one has only to think of such intrepid outsiders as the art critic Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard, and David Lee former editor of the Arts Review and now of the delightfully dissident arts newsletter The Jackdaw.

Without question Massow's article has come as an effective and timely attack upon the structure and the heads of Britain's arts establishment. It is a timely push because it is a regime that has been giving culture an increasingly bad name, including an added meaning to the term 'high art' – namely, a bad smell.

Here we will consider a few of the points Massow makes in his article - keeping in mind that his views are based both upon his experience at the ICA (which has functioned as a regular display case for all things avant-garde and conceptual), plus his first hand knowledge as an insider of arts establishment persons and the functioning structures within which they operate.

Britain's StateArt: Conceptualism

His main assertion is that contemporary British art is in fact a state art set entirely in the tradition of totalitarian state arts, such as that of the officially prescribed socialist realism of the former Soviet Union. He says:

"In Britain too, we have an official art –concept art – and it is endorsed by Downing Street, sponsored by big business and selected and exhibited by cultural tzars such as the Tate's Nicholas Serota who dominate the arts scene from their crystal Kremlins."

His assertion is correct. However, in order to understand how it is correct, or how this state of state art came about, it is necessary for us to get straight to the vera causa at this situation's heart.

The Top Tzar of the State Art

Nicholas Serita with a Tony Scragg sculptureThe instigating factor which has led Britain into being a state of state art is in fact a person: none other than a tzar – indeed, the top tzar - of Massow's crystal Kremlin, Sir Nicholas Serota (photo r.). Now I do not think it an exaggeration to say, nor that posterity will judge otherwise, but that Serota has proved to be the greatest bane ever to have afflicted British cultural life in all its long history. Which indeed sounds a glaring thing to say, yet, unfortunately, it is no exaggeration. And just how he is a bane I will seek to explain in support of Massow's general opinion regarding Britain's "terrifyingly powerful" arts establishment – something which I myself have had the chance of observing from the standpoint of being an independent nevertheless well-placed observer of the scene for almost thirty years.

Serota began his career as a regional art officer and exhibition organizer for the Arts Council of Great Britain. And throughout his career he has remained, effectively, a cultural civil servant – that is, a person who organizes art and artists to government requirements. It has been an administrative function at which he has patently excelled. From 1973-76 he was director of Oxford's Museum of Modern Art, an Arts Council 'outpost' gallery among a number that are dotted about Britain for the cultural benefit of the population. In 1976 he advanced to London as director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and from thence to become director of the Tate Gallery, Millbank – which, was until only recently (that is, until his creation of the massive Tate Modern, Bankside) Britain's premier gallery for the exhibition of modern works of art.

From his seat at the Tate, Serota was able steadily and remarkably to extend his acquisition of power and influence. In short, through his having been of efficient use to others (especially as an advisor to politicians who are, as a rule, plain ignorant on the subject of the visual arts) he was able to metamorphose himself, as it were, from being an eager cultural apparatchik, into being an art dictator, into being - as he is now – a culture tzar. Serota's current power and influence extends in four directions: one, into the area of patronage; two, of public spectacle, three, of architecture and public projects; and, four, into the area of pronouncement upon art itself. These four areas, of course, are interconnected ones: together they form a large stage for his overall performance as a tzar. However, for convenience sake we will need here to take them slightly separately.

Tzar of Patronage

As a culture tzar Serota has extensive powers of patronage; or, at least, ready access to these powers. For a number of years now he has had, for the financing of his individual aesthetic likings and projects, what amounts to an almost unhampered access into Britain's grand state purse of arts patronage. Such is his influence with government, that should he but ask, there is scarce that would be denied him. State regulated funds so far expended upon his pet acquisitions, projects, and recommendations show him (and his acolytes) to have been vested by government with the pocket-power punch of a modern day Medici or Sforza - or of even their both houses combined.

Tzars of Art and Artists: The 'Designators'

Because of Serota's powers of patronage: his power to ensure the purchase of artists' works for the nation's collections; to preside over the awarding of major prizes for artists (such as Britain's annual Turner Prize), to approve (or not) those artists' who may exhibit in main state galleries and outpost galleries, and to set people career-wise into (or to pitch them from) the arts establishment structure itself, he is, understandably reckoned by all and sundry to be a person with clout. As indeed he is.

Serota uses his clout to do what he has always done as a cultural civil servant: which is, again, simply to organize artists and art to government requirements. However, the problem has been with successive governments themselves during Serota's time in power: namely, in that none have had any clear notion about what art actually is, or of how it should practically be handled – that is to say, handled in an authentically democratic and culturally benign manner, and not in a potentially totalitarian one. Culture-blank politicians of successive governments have therefore leaped upon Serota as their convenient deliverer, as their guide out of a possible pickle. And, yes, he has been a fitting expedient: a reliable person who demonstrates to them an apparently certain judgement, and so therefore "obviously understands all about these sorts of arty things." Moreover, his flair, practical expertise and connections into the art world have ensured that he always "comes up with the goods" as regards the mounting of public exhibitions. Is anything further required? Successive governments have thought not. Therefore, without the guidance of culturally enlightened government ministers Serota has had to do the best he can within his rather narrow intellectual range, which, in truth, hardly matches up to his exceptional administrative gifts. Handing over to him in this way has proved in the long run to not to have been a particularly good thing for British cultural life, he has been one of those who has been instrumental in leading Britain into an unhealthy reign of state art.

Serota's intellectual shortcomings

Serota is both a fine administrator, and art circus impresario, but he is not a man blessed with a comprehensive grasp of art in the fullest of senses. His grasp of art, if we are here forced to compare works of art with things found in nature, is nothing in the equivalent order of, say, the botanical grasp of a Linnaeus, or a Charles Darwin. Put beside these two examples of ample thinkers Serota is revealed as a limited or single species grower in the vast Kew Gardens of Art: he would qualify only as a potato expert to work in Darwin's kitchen garden. He remains well out of his depth when it comes to the substantial issues and questions of horticulture/art; yet, since he possesses the power to do so, he is resolved upon keeping the rest of the British nation caught in the potato patch of conceptualism along with him - all slavishly attending to its rows. As an organizer and manager he is convinced that he knows his business; however, his business – if it is art - remains in fact bigger than he seems intellectually capable of knowing. Art and arts administration is the job, so he thinks, of cultivating a potato patch for its owners (in this case, the power holders of government). Within this managerially conceived thought it is naturally assumed that artists – as the tuber producing potato plants - especially need organizing, because they are somehow incompetent weeds when left to their own devices. Indeed, the whole ethos of the Britain's regional arts associations was established upon this assumption that artists needed the social worker guidance of visual arts officers because they are congenitally deficient at thinking for themselves.

The single species problem

Successive governments of recent years have all fallen for the Serotian idea that there is only one species of art to be seriously attended to and seriously supported with government funding. This has been an enormous mistake, and our having fallen for the error will perhaps one day be seen as a rather telling indicator of our contemporary ignorance of the nature and purpose of art, in contrast, for example, with our generally held views of science. There is I believe a suitable parallel to be drawn here between art and science. Art's reduction to conceptualism is like our reducing the whole of science down into a single selected field of research. Consider, for example, that if the current Blair government were suddenly to decide to restrict the entirety of contemporary science research down to the pursuit of one field of endeavour – it might be, say quantum physics, or perhaps haematology, and nothing else - Britain would surely become an instant laughing-stock of the world's scientific community. Yet this sort of restrictive thing is permitted with art, with hardly anyone being the wiser due to a common ignorance of the subject, shared even by arts administrators. It takes the likes of an Ivan Massow to remind us that there is more of a world out there for art to be discovering and reporting upon than a restricted conceptualism allows.

(to be continued)

15. März 2002


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