The Brexit vote has not come at a happy moment for the various Tate galleries. The new extension of Tate Modern, launched the moment before the vote in a blaze of publicity, was immediately swamped by thousands of visitors. Yet the vote very clearly demonstrates the huge cultural gap that exists between the cultural elites who live and work in London, and the way things are perceived by the bulk of the population living outside of the metropolis. For them, Tate Modern, in its new guise, very likely looks like an irrelevant fun palace – a government-funded playpen for idiots and tourists.
Tate Modern has meanwhile increasingly tended to throw its elder, plainer, less sexy sibling, Tate Britain, into the shade. The current B.P. funded hang of the main collection works well enough – that is until it starts to fall apart somewhere in the 1970s. However, B.P., under pressure from protests organised by the collective Liberate Tate, announced in March of this year that it was ending its 26-year sponsorship of Tate in all its forms.
Meanwhile, during the five-year reign of Penelope Curtis, now departed to Portugal, Tate Britain’s efforts at fully contemporary exhibitions illustrating what British art is thinking and doing now, or has thought and done in the immediate past, have been neither popular nor critical successes. Its major current show, Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979, is the epitome of elitist dreariness. Ready for a triumphant post-London tour in the Brexit-embracing provinces? Alas, I think not. It won’t even get a second showing at Tate Liverpool, the one Tate institution with genuine provincial roots.
A sad fate has attended the Turner Prize, Tate’s effort to honour and publicise new developments British contemporary art. This is no longer what it was in its hey-day: an entirely metropolitan event, surrounded by satisfactory uproar (satisfactory at least to snobbish metropolitans) of a culturally validating kind. The prize exhibition is no longer necessarily held in London, and a slightly smug do-goodery has replaced the previous quotient of scandal.
The 2015 prize was awarded to Assemble, a London-based direct action collective described by one of its 18 members as “sort of architects, sort of not, sort of maybe.” The actual prize- winner was not an artwork of any sort, but “an urban regeneration project.” The prize exhibition was held in Glasgow, and the publicity was polite but rather noticeably lukewarm. One gets the impression that attempts at outreach of this kind are regarded by bemused locals as a kind of alien invasion. Lady Bountiful comes to town.
The fact is that Brexit has turned a cruel spotlight on British metropolitan cultural institutions, and on the assumptions of those who organise, fund and celebrate them. On institutions concerned with the contemporary visual arts most of all. The activists linked to these, nearly all of them, are citizens of the state of Londinistan, even if some of them dwell, for reasons of economic necessity, outside its physical boundaries. Brexit voters live, both physically and mentally, in a different country. Passports at the ready, please, if you want to cross the border.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2016