So it turns out it has been over a decade since I last visited the Tate Modern. Yikes. That’s not a comment on what I went to see there last time, Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ and various sculptures by Henry Moore, I was enraptured by them. Though it says something that not much else on exhibit at the time seems to have caught my attention.
I returned to the Tate Modern for a few hours last weekend, as I was on my way to see Prometheus at the BFI IMAX in central London (I enjoyed it, though everyone else on the planet seems to think it was shit, c’est la vie). The contemporary works did not impress me, especially the ones that had large spaces dedicated to them and yet managed to convey very little. Anything younger than I am seemed to be ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, as ever. I was going to compliment Oskar Fischinger’s psychedelic display, Raumlichtkunst, as the only exception to this, until I found out it was made in 1926.
Many of the older works were hit and miss, but some were fantastic. Needless to say the two pieces by Salvador Dali I saw on display blew everything out of the water. Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) and Mountain Lake (1938) did not need half a room to ensorcel me, the small spaces they occupied contained vast vistas of dreamlike wonder. Again I was struck by how much difference it made to see them in the flesh, they felt alive. There were also various pieces by Picasso that impressed me a great deal to see in the flesh. Works by Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Pierre Roy, Meredith Frampton, Dora Carrington, Sir Sidney Nolan, and Leonora Carrington, all impressed and left me with a sense of the artist’s inner vision. I even found Meredith Frampton’s portraits somehow haunting.
I guess I can’t get away with not mentioning Damien Hurst, seeing as there was an entire show dedicated to him. I think it should say it all that I am not prepared to spend money to see anything by him. Until he comes out and says it has all been a big joke on the fine art scene and reveals himself to have been taking the right piss out of it all the whole time I will continue to find his work empty at best and vain self indulgence at worst. If Damian Hurst is to be the most renowned British artist of this generation and he was not taking the piss, then fine art has not only well and truly wedged its head up its own posterior, it has also been swallowing far too much of its own shit.
The main comment I heard from people while wandering around was ‘I don’t get it’, and I found that disquieting. A book that aimed not to be understood would not make it into the public consciousness, and yet this seems to be par for the course with fine art. The less understandable the better, as if the aim is to put as much pretension between the work and the viewer as possible. A viewer should not spend more time reading the plaque than looking at the work. If a piece is painted/constructed/etc for public display it should have public display in mind. When I look at a Dali or a Picasso I don’t need to get it, I am immersed in it; the consciousness of another speaks to me. Modern artists I have had this reaction to would never make it into a gallery like the Tate Modern. It is almost as if the unintelligible has become a safe place to hide, for curators and artists. How can the work be bad if no one understands it? If art is an attempt to be understood then modern art is either failing or reflecting the unintelligibility of the modern world. If the latter then it seems another form of failure, for it is within arts power to make sense of all this.
To the guy who said ‘I don’t get it and I don’t understand it, I hope that doesn’t make me a philistine,’ it doesn’t. Sadly, I don’t think that girl you were on a date with was very impressed. Try using words like ‘conceptual’, ‘context’, ‘subjective moment’, ‘allegory’ and the ever abused ‘juxtaposition’. I’m sure you’ll get laid next time.