This letter was sent to Dr Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, on 6 December 2014. Although addressing what I see as problems with that particular gallery display, I believe the issues raised have a much wider application, not only in the visual arts but in a wider cultural setting. And I believe they are of profound importance.
Dear Dr. Curtis,
‘Should we not say that we make a house by the art of building, and by the art of painting we make another house, a sort of man-made dream produced for those who are awake.’
Plato, The Sophist
Recently I made two visits to Tate Britain. The first was to see the ‘Late Turner’ exhibition and the second to view the gallery as a whole. I know the gallery well, having worked in the publications department in the late sixties and visited many times since. I had not until recently seen the new hang of the exhibits.
In spite of your efforts towards clarifying the collection I think that the hang of the galleries is a failure. This is why.
I believe that works of art must, at some level, offer the possibility of transforming our psychological states from the aloof, analytic, everyday to the emotional, engaged and even ecstatic. To do this the viewer must be allowed to give attention to particular works. Many contemporary exhibitions of visual art, in my experience, neglect this.
It seems to me that contemporary curators feel that to justify their existence they must first and foremost be educators. Each exhibition must hang on a narrative so as to explain the work put before the visitors. The narrative, not the work itself, becomes the subject of the show. To my mind all of these narratives, the value of which I do not deny, can be much better told in books or videos. To make them the subject of an exhibition is to deny the fundamental reason we go to art – for its potentially transforming and emotional impact. To visit an exhibition these days is like going to a concert and having someone, during, for example, the performance of a Beethoven symphony, telling you when, why and how he changed key at that moment, perhaps playing a bit of Haydn in the middle to illustrate the influences. The transcendent experience of the music would be totally lost. Curators seem to lack the courage to give works the room they need to speak for themselves. In other words they seem afraid to exercise their essential aesthetic judgement. In your arrangement (and this is very common, if not universal these days) the narrative swamps the work. It is impossible to sit in front of any single work and give it proper attention; the surrounding visual noise totally prevents this. Giving attention to works of art is an absolute essential to the experiencing of their qualities.
The one gallery which almost gets there is the second Henry Moore room, but even this is overcrowded with work – and people. When I visited, the room was swamped by a large and noisy group of students sitting on the floor and drawing the sculptures. These galleries should not be mistaken for classrooms. Education in art, essential though it is, should take place elsewhere. Some of the works in our galleries, if we truly value them, should be given due reverence and be there to be experienced, not learned about. The rooms would then become like secular chapels wherein the work can be viewed with utmost attention. If this sounds elitist, then so it is. The rewards of great art do not come easy and one can only experience their true significance if one is allowed to see and contemplate the work in an appropriate setting.
In short, I believe you have turned what could be a gallery of aestheitc objects into a museum of historic artefacts.
What is the solution? You obviously can’t place each painting in its own room! Nor do very many merit it. But I suggest that some rooms – several indeed – be put aside for the display of one artist’s work – either one work, or three at most – in rooms where the public can sit and give proper attention to them. It would be up to the curators to choose this selection and be brave enough to back it up. And leave out the labels – or put them nearby, but not adjacent. All the ‘education’ can be achieved by other more effective means.
My rule would be – separate the experience of the work from the analysis of it. They just do not mix. Perhaps Plato’s house of dreams would then be rebuilt.
I believe these issues to be of great importance to the nature of contemporary cultural experience and have implications beyond the visual arts. It is a symptom of an age where information takes precedence over a lived experience and thus produces a deadening weight rather than enlivening spring at the heart of our society.
An essay from my book ‘Essays and Images’ – The ends of art (click here to read) deals with all these matters in a slightly more expanded manner.
Art and Mind