20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 36


Caring about art

Giles Auty

At a time when senior churchmen are accusing politicians of having 'uncar- ing' attitudes toward selected social issues of the moment, it may seem impertinent to add that to professional artists in Britain the uncaring attitudes of politicians will seem only too familiar. To give merely one example, I doubt whether many politicians (or senior churchmen) know or care that proportionately far more part-time art lecturers than miners have lost their liveli- hoods in the past few years. To the possible rejoinder 'Who needs part-time art lectur- ers anyway?' I can reply only: 'The bright- er element among art students who bene- fit most from the first-hand professional experience such lecturers bring.' To argue further that in this country part-time art lecturing has traditionally provided the sole financial back-stop for professional painters and sculptors will similarly do little to melt the hearts of economists. And while some of us may favour self-reliance in economic as in artistic affairs, a danger- ous point nevertheless arrives where hard- nosed pragmatism becomes hard to distin- guish from philistinism. If, as I fear, we are in danger of becoming a society increasing- ly permeated with philistinism, it would now be difficult to say whether such saturation is spreading more rapidly from the bottom or from the top.

In the light of a growing danger of cultural collapse, the enterprise shown by the current director of the Tate Gallery, Mr Alan Bowness, in sending copies of the Tate's Illustrated Biennial Report 1982-84 to MPs of all parties should not be over- looked. While asking for their interest I

• doubt whether he is asking for an endorse- ment of current policy as this may require too specialised an understanding. Rather I think he wants more widespread recog- nition that the visual arts are not merely peripheral to our society. As ever, the quality and vigour of debate provoked by 'Bang go our hopes of buying shares in British Telecom.' the visual arts is essential to their health.

The simultaneous publication of The Tate Gallery Illustrated Biennial Report 1982-84 and The Tate Gallery Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1980-82 (both available from the Tate or from book- shops, each) on 28 September makes this an important date in the artistic calen- dar because the Tate hierarchy are such powerful arbiters of taste. For what they decide to embrace or reject has repercus- sions that run unseen through the entire structure of contemporary art in Britain. For example, the respectability conferred on some rather dubious modern art move- ment through their official patronage can affect areas such as teaching practice in art schools for a number of years. This was seen during the height of the Conceptual Art fever of 15 years ago, a period tellinglY illustrated by the case of a Slade-trained fine art lecturer who was dismissed from his job because he found himself unable to 'teach' students how to lie on the ground in rows or bang paint cans with wooden implements. While few members of the public will argue with policy pursued at the Tate by staff of the Historic British Collection, it is decisions by the director and his advisory staff from the Modern Collection which regularly create fierce divisions of opinion. During the early months of 1976 the 'bricks' affair made the Tate director of that era, Sir Norman Reid, something of a household name. In retrospect the whole 'bricks' issue is a historical oddity since the newspaper article which triggered it was based on The Tate Gallery Biennial Report and Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1972-74. The matter was thus already far from current when a Sunday Times jour- nalist, wondering, like many of his col- leagues, what on earth to write about next, hit upon the 'bricks'. Even then, the subsequent notoriety of Carl Andre's so- called low sculpture was largely a matter of chance since the relevant catalogue showed many other acquisitions at least as curious. In fact, the writer could just as easily have cited Richard Long's preposterous 'Circle of Sticks' as Carl Andre's firebricks. In the end, a journalist's desire for a snaPPY, headline — 'The Tate drops a costly brick — was probably the determining factor. You may wonder whether any of the acquisitions made by the Tate during the past four years will provoke a similar furore, now that the latest evidence has become available. This is as unlikely as it iS

undesirable. Now, as then, l

it is overall

policy we should question more than the purchase of a single item. Yet in spite of the aura of ignorance and vulgarity which surrounded it, the affair of the Tate Gal- lery 'bricks' possibly achieved more than we then imagined. First, it showed those in authority that in some way, however inar- ticulate, an unsuspected number of people care deeply about artistic issues. Second, it marked the beginning of the end for a period of inexcusable cultural cowardice, a time succinctly described by the American critic Harold Rosenberg when he wrote, `Whatever trends still remain discernible have ceased to arouse expectancy. One idea in art seems as good as another, and no idea best of all.'

During Sir Norman Reid's directorship, ending in 1980, the Modern Collection of the Tate Gallery acquired much art which, even discounting the benefit of hindsight, should never have been bought. Yet the mistakes which were made were not so much symptomatic of lack of individual Judgment as of absence of balanced vision. In that era the sustaining myths of Modern- ism still remained largely intact and were employed by bodies such as the Arts Council and Tate Gallery as tests of artistic orthodoxy. It is hardly surprising that for most the intellectual options of the Mod- ernist position were altogether too soft and tempting to be resisted. In those days, orthodox Modernists could still fall effort- lessly into a position of unassailable moral rectitude as defenders of experiment, ex- pression and progress while at the same tune managing to suggest that all critics of their views were little short of barbarous °Ppressors. However, with the overdue collapse of the central Modernist ethos a tougher and more invigorating artistic cli- mate has been created. It is in this altered critical atmosphere that the Tate's current director, Mr Bowness, and his Modern Collection staff must now operate. Indica- tions so far suggest that the somewhat unbalanced buying policies of his predeces- sor have already been revised, yet the universal problems facing decision-makers of modern collections still remain. In essence these stem from the know- ledge that the public actively dislikes a large proportion and distrusts most of the remainder of the art found in such collec- tions. The paranoia such dislike creates all too easily leads to a view which deems Public opinion irrelevant and which sees contemporary art more in a didactic than a Pleasurable or therapeutic role. For too long, major modern art galleries h. ave defended their roles by claims of benevolent neutrality, assuring us that they abre sim_._


py displayin a of the est artl produced in anycross-section given period. However, these claims are both false and Isingenuous since they discount the vitally Important role played by processes of selection. The art we see in modern collec- tions is by no means representative even of a fraction of the art produced at any Particular time. Usually it is a small and Often unrepresentative selection from it and merely indicates the type of art our

decision-makers have been seen to be encouraging.

The failure of modern art collections to engage more widespread public liking and sympathy stems from a narrow and exclu- sive understanding by museum staff of what 'modern art' embraces. For years, formal innovation and rejection of tradi- tion were the prime Modernist keynotes. While the former aspect finally exhausted itself and even its loyal public, the latter principle contained the seeds of its own destruction right from the outset.

In their wholesale rejection of a high proportion of avant-garde art, the general public may always have sensed the most important thing wrong with it. In short, if you want more people to care about art, then more art must care about people.