Christopher Smith still can’t see the Emperor’s new clothes, even after all these years.
It was a steaming hot summer in central London this year: humid, and frankly unpleasant. A great disgruntlement descended, and people generally became impatient and selfish. I could feel myself becoming more cynical about human nature, and even the cat became grumpy. The heat persisted through most of September – and I had to keep reminding myself that I had survived 1976, when temperatures spent quite a lot of time in the nineties Fahrenheit.
1976 was also the year a scandal broke over the fact that the Tate Gallery had bought some ‘low sculpture’: a pile of bricks put together in a rectangle by Carl Andre, who called it Equivalent VIII. In fact, they’d bought it in 1972, and had paid £2,297 – which perhaps doesn’t sound very much until you reflect that in the same year my parents had bought a pile of bricks that we could actually live in, set in an acre of land, for £12,000. We called it Number 39. After someone poured food colouring onto the bricks, the Tate wrote to the American brickyard where they had been made to see if they could get a new set of bricks to use as spares in case it happened again. As it turned out, the brickyard had stopped manufacturing that type of firebrick, but the delicious irony was that the Tate might have possessed two identical sets of 120 bricks, one having cost £2,297, the other only a few dollars.
Should you wish to see Equivalent VIII, you will be please to know that it has come back out of the basement and is in Room 2 of level 2 (“Between Object and Architecture”) at the newly rehung Tate Modern – housed, of course, in the old Gilbert Scott power station at Bankside, sitting opposite the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral. Tate Modern is within walking distance of my vicarage, and I went recently to see the gallery’s new extension, known as the “Switch House”. Frankly, I had been rather inclined to think that there wasn’t enough bad modern art to fill the unextended Tate Modern; but since galleries of modern art have become essential to any go-ahead global city, London must have a bigger one than anywhere else. The new director of the gallery, Frances Morris, tells us that “now we live in a global world” (which makes me wonder what the world was before it was global), and that “we are trying to open up the canon, to demonstrate how that familiar history which we have all been taught in the West is actually much bigger and complex, and full of wonderful things”. You know what that means, of course: there is no longer any such thing as a hierarchy of quality. In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king; in the world of conceptual art, everybody is king. The Tate Modern website places a photograph of an exquisite little bronze dancer by Degas next to that wretched urinal that Duchamp passed off as art.
Duchamp’s “Readymades” formed a logical starting-point for an interesting programme about conceptual art on the telly recently, presented by James Fox, a baby-faced art historian and fellow of Gonville & Caius who irritated me once by describing Christianity as “unoriginal in many ways”, having only one new idea: “its distaste for wealth, extravagance, and ostentatious display”. Never mind the Incarnation, then. Still, I enjoyed his Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? He talked not only about Duchamp, but also about the appalling Piero Manzoni, who sold tins of his own you-know-what at the price of their weight in gold. Recently, one of those tins changed hands for 200 times the current value of its weight in gold: £182,500.
There was a great deal of talk about these conceptual artists as it were demythologising art, and separating art from craft: the art is the idea, the craft merely its execution. Skill is an overrated and outdated business. If I have an idea that half a sheep pickled in formaldehyde could be a work of art, it matters not who does the butchery. Ironically, Carl Andre’s bricks knock most of the rubbish in the Tate Modern extension into a cocked hat, because all the more recent stuff seems so derivative. It also takes itself far too seriously, which would presumably have horrified those original chancers Duchamp and Manzoni. It’s where Dr Fox fell down too, as his documentary went on. He should have been taking it increasingly less seriously, not more.
Fr Owen Higgs, fortunately, had the right idea at the exhibition he reviewed in New Directions in July. Encountering the huge pyramid of oranges entitled Soul City by Roelof Louw, Fr Higgs ate one. He clearly felt the disapprobation of his fellow gallery-goers, even though the stated point of the exhibit is that it ‘literally dematerialises and changes through visitor participation’, according to the display caption. Mind you, I have always had a suspicion that an artwork that needs to be explained by its label is perhaps not as interesting as its creator might have us believe. “Look – I can do a really interesting art-type thing, even though I can neither paint nor sculpt.” Yes, and look at those lovely new clothes the Emperor is wearing.
When all is said and done, I have a terrible feeling that these modern art galleries – the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Tate Modern in London – are not really about art, but about the visitor experience. Millions of tourists trudge round them every year, and are offered shops, cafes and restaurants in which to spend their money. They’re a kind of grown-up equivalent of Alton Towers or Disneyland. Mind you, how do you feel when you visit your cathedral nowadays?