Published  08/07/2001

London comment: e-letter from London

London comment: e-letter from London

Issues in focus

The sudden departure of Chief Curator Lars Nittve from the Tate Modern in July suggested that all was not well at the great terminus of modern art, following the Century City extravaganza which so dismayed the critics. The sackcloth and ashes of Arte Povera and the subliminality of Giorgio Morandi restored the gallery's equilibrium overnight, but Century City had already proved an intersection too far in the highly -charged atmosphere of the international curatorium.

This high-octane progression in London has now been injected with fresh fuel by two key issues of contention, currently under debate. The first has been the strong individual criticism of the contemporary art curatorium by the National Portrait Gallery's BP Award winner Stuart Pearson. He has demanded that Nicholas Serota be sacked; and in addition that the Tate Modern group of curators be retrenched, since they have unwarrantedly become supreme arbiters of taste, both in public gallery acquisitions up and down the land, and in major commissions. Pearson claims, justifiably, that the influence of a relatively confined set of criteria for acceptable contemporary art has driven art schools to apply the same criteria to student work, with debilitating results.

The second bone of contention has been the personal statement by the playwright Tom Stoppard when addressing the Royal Academy Dinner. He suggested that ‘a fault line in the history of art has been crossed when it is unnecessary for an artist to make anything when the thought. The inspiration itself, had come to constitute the achievement’. Subsequently, reinforcing this in the Times Literary Supplement 15 June, Stoppard said that ‘as a result of this, the instructive thing about the press coverage engendered and the letters that I have received, is that merely to describe the phenomenon (an object can be a work of art just because the artist says it is) is to be taken to be attacking it. From Praxiteles to Pollock,’ says Stoppard, ‘the artist was someone who made something (not to stop there); the personal action of a unique and necessary maker of something remained part of the meaning of the word artist, whether his name was Klimt or de Kooning.’

Independently, both Pearson and Stoppard have forced a sharp introspection upon the art establishment and its criteria — no bad thing perhaps after two decades of Brian Sewell crying in the wilderness from the Evening Standard, to broad agreement amongst the readers there. Arte Povera and Morandi are thus well-timed to remind us firstly of the sublimation of ideas, and in the second instance, of the subliminality of the object.

It is to be regretted that the highly respected arts commentator Mark Lawson no longer leads the intended cutting-edge BBC arts review programme ‘The Late Review’. This allows us a caveat in terms of the issues above, current in London. As part of a presumed ‘dumbing-down’ process Kirsty Wark now takes the chair, aided stoically by Germaine Greer and occasional inputs from Mark Lawson's old guard. Last week's reviewing of Howard Hodgkin's intervention with his paintings in the Dulwich Art Gallery (a brilliant curatorial wheeze) was typical of a trivialisation process for contemporary art. Beckett on film also got short shrift despite its notable originality and scholarship. In his own Guardian column on Saturday Lawson deftly retrieved his position elsewhere, remarking on three salient contemporary works in London that essentially refuted Stoppard's standpoint: Juan Munoz's sculpture installation at Tate Modern; Rachel Whiteread's new 'plinth' sculpture in Trafalgar Square, and Danny Liebeskind's superb 'Eighteen Turns' at the temporary Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. In each case, he claimed, it was indeed the artist's idea that was paramount in the creative process. Lawson played his latest trump card, and remains a key player.

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