The British Contemporary Art Scene (part four)

Serota's Gift to the State

"But what, in fact, are these conceptualist circus tents, these coliseum environments, these 'Conceptualaeums' large and small dotted over Britain other than stables: they are stable blocks for the present and intended stables of 'contemporary artists'? They are nothing else, and nothing other than Britain's Augean stables of art. They are Augean stables because, however imposingly and deliciously they may present, they are nonetheless built from bottom to top upon utterly false assumptions about art. They are not about art, but about circus.
The deceptions, and from these, the fragrance of deception, upon which this circus business is built and maintained – all the time falsely using the name of art as its justification - is the stench of the stables. And those who would aspire to be artists, and can happily remain chomping oats in these stables, must define themselves not as true horses but merely as state donkeys contributing even more to the fragrance."

By Peter Strong

Conceptual art reins supreme as the official state art. I have not myself for years heard any arguments, nor have I seen any evidence to the contrary: as a form it is entrenched to the extent of its being both 'the case' and the status quo. A guileless stating in public of this underlying fact was the essence of Massow's unforgivable sin in the eyes of his erstwhile colleagues in collusion. From this crucial point of acknowledgment of conceptualism's presence and dominance of the British art scene we can now pose one or two closing questions, as well as make one or two observations.

Is Britain's state art democratic?

What I have here so far described, with reference to Massow's comments, indicates that the reign and maintenance of circus conceptualism is an entirely satisfactory arrangement from governments' point of view. But, now, on this same point, we have to arrive at the ultimate question regarding this 'state art'. And it is a pertinent question in view of Britain being a democratic state that is maintained by a body of supposedly democratic politicians. The question of this state art is simply this: Is it democratic?

"Of course it's democratic!" is the British politician's characteristic reply. And the "irrefutable proof" typically proffered for its being so, is, as one might expect: the proof of numbers – those dizzying tabulated audience and attendance figures secured from the big conceptualist spectacles and other show tent events. However, the big mistake, or indeed, if it is not just simply a naïve error, the rank deception hiding within this answer is, of course, the attempt to label populism democracy. Populism is not the same thing as democracy: they are two different things. Although it is of obvious advantage for totalitarian populists to claim democracy on the grounds that there are crowds of people involved, it is undeniably foolish for us ever to be taken in by arguments of this sort. As history shows us Mussolini could muster a crowd, and Hitler could muster a crowd; and we know that demagogues are demagogues because they are damned good at mustering crowds; equally, those in the long tradition of canny circus masters can muster crowds. But this does not necessarily mean that they are democratic crowds. The contention that every crowd is by definition a democratic crowd is therefore absolutely false. Crowds and democratic attendances are not necessarily synonymous.

Nor do crowds automatically gather to the word democracy, otherwise democracies would have 100% election attendances without there being any need to cajole people – however nicely - towards the ballot boxes. In reality, democracy, as opposed to populism is, in a world context (and proportionally, in a British context), a political form practiced by a rather small total of people. But these 'practisers' of it have never to be either lazy or unscrupulous people in order to keep democracy generally functioning for the benefit of the greater number: which is, for those of the majority populations who can – as is their right – be lazy, lax, confused, unscrupulous, immature, sincerely or sceptically averse to forms of democracy as such, or else just plain uninterested in social affairs or other people. The practisers have to keep democracy having a good name. That happens to be both a democrat's and the democratic politician's primary campaign, even if many of the elected ones nowadays – in the tempting vales of pragmatism - have entirely forgotten the fact that it is.

Part and parcel of keeping democracy in a state of good name involves democratic politicians having a very good idea about art, its powers, and its potential dangers. My view is that art undemocratically exploited by the state within a democracy poses a danger to democracy itself.

In particular, politicians ought not to be lazy and foolish enough to hand over the task of the popularity stakes to populist operatives who are readily prepared to misuse art. For in doing so the danger is there that they will be handing over democracy itself to those who do not either understand or respect its long-term efficacy as a means of social ordering. Elected politicians have always to attend to the work of crowd-facing and crowd-convincing, personally - which is, frankly, the 'campaign of the good name'; otherwise, things can go very sour for the principle of democracy - as has been surely happening in Britain, if those declining voting figures which we've been referring to are anything of an indicator. People can sniff out a genuine campaign from a hype fest. The honest voters, understandably, do not savour traipsing to the polling stations merely to drop their as good as futile ballot papers into hype contaminated boxes – and so, they stay at home in states ranging from disgust to despairing indifference. The gullible crowds and the political diehards are thereby left to inherit the vote, and to inherit the scene at the rousing summons of hype-hype-hooray politicians – the little Neros, spinners, and demagogues. And the tool for hype, which, again, history well affirms, that such types get happily into the habit of using is art.

Which ought, perhaps, to be a matter of some concern to us: for without a doubt, the answer to the question regarding Britain's conceptualist state art "Is it democratic?" is an emphatic no.

The power of art

So Britain's official state art 'circus conceptualism' is not democratic – but why should that matter? Now that Massow has let the cat out of the bag ought Britons to begin to lose sleep over the fact: for, after all, isn't art always just a bunch of innocent amusement, something that can be of no real harm to anyone at any time in whatever its forms or dosages? Well, art isn't exactly harmless, and Britons ought now to be losing a little sleep, I think, after Massow's wake up call on their situation.

Ignorance may comfort us, it may assume art to be powerless, and always a good thing, and merely enjoyable; but, however, if we begin to look at and to ponder the true picture of art in its activations and manifestations, we will discover that it is, without exaggeration, the most powerful and dangerous capacity simultaneously in the hands and minds of humans. It is no coincidence that human cultures erupted in their developments upon the achievement of art with its concomitance of abstract thinking – we have ever since been emerging through our potentialities (on a narrow line between being gods or monsters) by way of this "harmless" thing.

Just how powerful is art? Shall I put the answer this way: more people, especially nowadays in the West and Westernised places, do things in the name of art and art forms than they do things in the names of either science or of religion. Here to take a commonplace example, the one of our just sitting passively at home watching a television set: there, drawn before the presence of the screen, often day after day, art has us powerfully and habitually caught. And if that constitutes art cueing people to sit and to look, and to become inured into the way of sitting and looking, then art can be seen powerfully to cue and to regulate people in innumerable other directions besides: it cues us as to what to wear (or not), and how exactly to do so; it cues us as to how to shape, tattoo, mark or otherwise embellish our bodies; it cues us as to how to jump and gyrate, and to shout and to sing and to hum (and even what sounds to make); as well as generally how to conduct or misconduct ourselves in public and private. No scientific advice, or religious injunction these days quite matches up to the sheer cueing power of art in the getting of people to do almost any conceivable and conceptual variation and antic. For certain, art is a powerful force.

Commandeering art's power: Serota's gift to the state as 'the state'

And as a vital force, one as appealing and as dynamic as sex itself, art is not beyond being commandeered. Consider our own medieval European past: Christianity only became so immensely powerful through its successful commandeering of art. Today, Christianity has lost both art and its power. Art has in different places in the past been commandeered, and it will doubtless in the future be commandeered time and time over; however, it is our immediate concern in today's Britain as to whether in fact it is a good or an acceptable thing for a distinctly undemocratic art form to be commandeered by government and to be riveted to the hub of a proper democracy. That is the question. Is it harmless, or healthy? My own view is that an official state art, so-pinned to the centre of power, constitutes a disastrous state of affairs, present and potential for Britain. What may be perfectly in order for a totalitarian state set-up is not necessarily so for a democracy. This is, I believe, Massow's main argument, as it is mine.

British state art, as it stands, is a powerful tool for politicians to take advantage of – worse luck, for short sighted and shallow ones to do so. The disaster for British art and artists in the wide sense is that state art should be there at all: it is an abomination to a democracy. Yet how indeed did Britain's great mistake of state art get there? Whose fault was it? Well, to recap, it was the original fault of government itself, a coalition government to start with in 1939 (when Britain's Arts Council was founded). That government during wartime saw the need to ensure means of keeping the British people amused and in a state of high morale. That and successive governments thereafter effectively took it upon themselves to fulfil the role of the nation's number one cultural patron through the Arts Council. The Arts Council might perhaps never have come into being had it not been for the war. Then, after the war, some 43 years elapsed of paternalistic and rather amateurishly conducted patronage of the visual arts. Until that phase ended in 1988 with the appointment of Nicholas Serota, as the director of the Tate Gallery, Millbank. Serota arrived with a highly professional approach that outstripped the well-meaning but inefficient doddering of his predecessors. From his Tate base he grew his power considerably, all the time on a momentum of putting into effect the essential amusement/ morale-booster ethos asked of him by his government employers. Ably he built the type of 'operation' for the visual arts that overall, across the nation, could function as a powerful instrument for the amusement and artistic stimulation of crowds by way of public spectacle. Serota was, and is, a populist operative sans pareil. (It is fitting in the extreme that his crowning achievement, the Tate Modern, Bankside, should have been born from the shell of a former powerhouse, as he had himself throughout his career been operating on the state's behalf as an arts dynamo.) Nevertheless, it is a pity, both for Serota and for the nation, that he has dedicated his considerable talents to shaping for Britain what is in reality a monster. This ramified monster of conceptualist art outposts dotted about the nation is his gift to the state. Let me hastily add that it is his gift to the state as 'the state', rather than to the people of the nation, as may superficially appear to be the case. Serota's people are crowds, not people, his attention is upon crowds as an outward expression of state power. His tactic has replaced a critical public with a voyeuristic crowd.

The nature of the gift

Serota's is ostensibly a gift to the state, an impressive public presentation of buildings along with their interior whirrings of circus events. However, in reality, it is a prepared 'package' ready and waiting for the politicians to take on for their purposes – perhaps, if not inevitably, to be tempted by. What, then, is this gift to the state as the state: what is the real nature of the gift within the wrapping of edifices, installations, and sounds?

Shall we unwrap the parcel, then, in order to determine what the gift inside has to offer. Easy enough – Hey Presto! Paper away. It's done. And what we find glinting before us is art's magic casket, its conceptualist box of tricks. Normally, so I understand, this casket is carried as part of a lively circus, on a bandwagon, which is always, of course, advancing in a vanguard. But here, at least for a moment, we will stop the imaginary parade to open the box and, yes, to see that it contains a large array of charmingly crammed compartments holding things like cosmetics jars and conjuring devices. There are labels on the jars: let us read just a few of them. This jar contains 'Progress'. This jar contains 'Glamour'. This jar contains 'Cool gloss'. This one contains 'Youth', this other 'vitality'. Here is a moisturizing liquid called 'In the swim', and here a contemporising cream called 'Up to the minute'. And there are more besides. What we have revealed before us is the 'kit' box of the artistic populist operative, the conceptualist ringmaster, or, the official state jester who is also in this last role the state's nationally licensed shocker – great fun, ho!

The casket's arrival as an altogether gift implies that it is there, and can be resorted to by politicians as a cosmetics and gimmicks store, both to perk up their own possibly lacklustre or otherwise wanting electoral images, or, either to jolly up or to dramatize the social occasions within which they present themselves to the public. And why shouldn't politicians be tempted to use art for all the advantages it can bring them? It can help to bring them vivification, appeal, and, perhaps, that aspiring politician's necessary key into the cabinet of eldorado - charisma. So why should any government, or party gang of politicians, resist getting themselves associated with the celebrity circus of concept art? It can put them - with a relatively modest expenditure of effort - at the van of things, without their having to do too much thinking, or doing: all it requires is merely posing in the garb and company of the vital up-to-date 'art force'. That is enough to be getting on with, for a start - as it also happens, unfortunately, to be a posing danger to the democratic public at large, for a start.

How dangerous indeed it is, then, when, as Massow remarks: "… the arts establishment is guilty of conspiring to make concept art synonymous with contemporary art." For if this truly happens, or already has happened, then concept or conceptualist art thereby becomes for all time the definitive expression of the ultimate point of progress - youthfulness, inventiveness, glamour, and so forth: it becomes officially the one and the only kind of art in Britain (and, logically, we have to extend this to the entire world) that can possibly incorporate and 'synomymise' all the elements of the contemporary. And it has been Serota's solemn task in his building and organizing of the 'package' containing these concepts to ensure that the politicians should have full control of it.

Custodian of the gift

Full control of it up to a point, that is. As, yes, there will always be a need for a British government officiating the official concept art to know just where the ultimate point of contemporary art's progress at any advancing moment exactly is. And the definer, on the government's behalf, of this ultimate point of progress would, of course, have to be, for as ever long as he lives, the Archbishop of Millbank himself – the infallible Pope of populism, Nicholas Serota. Nobody else would be in the remotest way qualified to determine for us this ultimate point. He is the definer of modernity, the pinnacle-pointer of positivistic advance, the designator, the priest-prophet of Art, now spelled with a capital A.

It is of significance to note that with the advent of Serota art has graduated into becoming the new and up-to-date servant of the state, promising to supplant the withered remnants of Britain's once powerful established religion. People these days can, as has already been said, be more effectively influenced through art than through religion. And this, it seems, is now being steadily politically recognized. It is convenient for governments – especially at times when they don't quite know what they're doing, or what's happening - to have at their side the godsend of a fashionable mumbo-jumbo to help them paper over the cracks and chasms of their deficiencies. Maybe that's what once in the past praying to God via a state religion provided, but in an obviously more sincere way; nevertheless, the old set of power workers just ran out of steam. Symbolically the Tate, Bankside, and St. Paul's Cathedral face on to each other across the Thames – a dying moral power; a growing baneful power, but one as yet not fully comprehended as such by its present throng of awed worshippers.

There are those who would advocate that religion and state should always be organized to remain separate; likewise, I think that it is a healthier thing for art and the state to stay always separate. Which is not, as we can see, happening in Britain at present – quite the opposite. How concerning it is therefore to be reading in Massow's New Statesman article of Serota's and Saatchi's circus performers parading their ways and their wares within the very rooms and corridors of 10 Downing Street.

At what price?

What has happened on the British visual arts scene over recent years is a situation that has been neither good nor necessary.

The intrusion of a massively state funded non-democratically structured art circus into the middle of Britain's democratic political forum merely tricks the public's and the politicians' attentions away from the necessities of the political forum and the adult business that ought to be being conducted by all parties at its focus. Exposure to an arts circus ultimately distracts, tempts, and undermines politicians. Which is not good.

A narrow conceptualist philosophy, state supported, redolent with many deceptive assumptions has succeeded in getting built a monstrous nationwide arts edifice. An edifice that has, firstly, effectively usurped the critical public's role in the defining of art in a democracy, and, secondly, has almost totally reduced the individual citizen's rightful claim to be the primary custodian of contemporary artistic patronage. These are not at all necessary diminutions for the state to have endorsed, but in fact are highly detrimental ones.


On the topic of the redolence of the narrow conceptualist philosophy's deceptive assumptions regarding the visual and plastic arts. The question now is this: will Ivan Massow be a forthcoming Hercules geared to cleanse the Augean stable blocks (e.g. of The Tate Modern and the Tate Liverpool, plus the assortment of government subsidized horse-boxes such as Oxford's Museum of Modern Art, and the ICA itself) of a pungent public deception? Somebody needs to do it; or rather, in anyone's brave name a new order of critical opinion, plus of general artistic comprehension, needs admission into the cultural life of Britain.

Or, as some people are asking: is this 'coming clean' by Massow - necessary and honest as it is – in fact a bid to stake for himself a key place in the formation of any new regime? Certainly, the olds are wholly inappropriate to a democracy, and it is time to switch the gallery lights off on them. It was a courageous thing for Massow to have said what he did – a lucky thing too that his financial independence has allowed it. It may happen now that he is dropped as quietly as possible by the powers that set him where he is at the ICA, and that he too will be spending some time in the wilderness. The Augean stables may be due to stay stenching for a while longer. Even so, this leaves Massow entirely clear of conscience to join-in when the scene does change, for it is a state of deception that cannot – as many are now sensing - endure forever.

4. Mai 2002


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