The Tate’s Anti-Painting Tunnel Vision


The show “Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists” at Tate Britain did not exactly get off to a cracking start. At 5.30 p.m., half an hour before closing time on its opening day, there were precisely zero visitors in the five large rooms hosting the display. In the few minutes prior to that, there was just one visitor – me. I walked briskly through the rooms and exited, leaving them empty, with not even a security guard to make the paintings feel loved.

According to The Guardian, Clarrie Wallis one of the show’s curators said, “there had been a perception towards the end of the last century that painting had run out of steam, or that its ‘pre-eminent position’ was being threatened by the rise of installation and video art.”

I wouldn’t dispute that, but what she fails to mention is that one of the most outspoken leaders in this anti-painting, new media campaign was her boss, the director of the Tate galleries, Sir Nicholas Serota, who, as The Guardian reported in 2005, planned “a radical unseating of painting and sculpture from their positions as the ‘king and queen’ of art”.

At the time, I analysed the recent acquisitions shown on the Tate site for artists born since 1945. 50% were installations and only 4% were paintings. Serota proclaimed: “Public interest in all aspects of visual culture is greater than ever before, particularly for new media such as photography, video and digital art.”  (That may have been true: a  survey featured on the BBC2 Culture Show revealed that public interest in new media had soared to a hitherto undreamt-of whopping 2.8% of the population.)

Despite saying of video, “We are all sick of biennales where it takes 20 minutes to see every work,” Serota went on to modestly admit that he had “begun to understand what it felt like to be Picasso and Braque in 1907 – absolutely determined to bury the previous century,” which in his case was presumably to bury Picasso and Braque, as he considered, “the real energy has gone into photography, film, new media.”

The purpose of the new multi-million pound Tate Modern extension was to “provide new kinds of display space for media such as photography, film, video and digital art”, while media such as painting and sculpture would continue to mostly remain in the storeroom.  I understand that the new display space has not to date proved the supposed public interest in new media.

Serota has not been without allies at the Tate. In 2004, Paul (now Lord) Myners, then chair of Tate trustees, informed me, during a Stuckist demonstration against the Turner Prize, that our show of paintings at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool was “a travesty” and that “painting was the medium of yesterday”. I am inclined to think that my response “and of tomorrow” was more perspicacious, bearing in mind what is nine years later acknowledged to be something of a resurgence of the medium, a bandwagon which the Tate is now keen to climb aboard.

“Painting Now” is, according to The Guardian, a show of “work by five UK-based artists Tate believes deserve more public exposure.” The idea originated after curators visited the studio of one of the artists, Gillian Carnegie and were “taken aback to discover she had not exhibited in a UK public gallery since she was nominated for the Turner prize, in 2005” (prior to which she had been included in the Tate Triennial in 2003). Curator, Clarrie Wallis, observed, “Gillian, like a number of other really important painters, just hadn’t had that opportunity.”

Really? Carnegie was in shows in the Arnolfini, Bristol, 2007; Tate St. Ives, 2010; Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Cumbria, 2012; and, earlier this year, in Tate Britain again. I seem to know more about the Tate exhibitions than their own curators do. During the relevant period, she was in group shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Netherlands and Ireland amongst other places, as well as having seven solo shows in London, Cologne, New York and Dublin.  None of this apparently accounts for much in terms of public exposure in Wallis’s eyes.

If Carnegie has not had much public exposure according to the Tate (and despite her presence in its own shows), one has to wonder exactly on what basis the gallery has deemed her to be “really important”. The only answer seems to be that it is on the basis of the curators’ dictate (and they are dumbfounded to observe that no one else shares their view).


Charles Thomson in the empty gallery at the Tate’s Painting Now exhibition.

In this way the Tate acts not as a reflection of the country’s culture, but takes the role with its prominence and power of setting the agenda for the country to follow. It is creating a state-approved art. It is worth noting here that another of the five artists being shown, Tomma Abts (a “UK-based” artist who spends most of her time in her native country, Germany) is not only a past Turner Prize winner, but is also a serving Tate trustee.

That the Tate confidently sees itself as the determinant of national culture is a direct reflection of its supremo, Sir Nicholas Serota. The Financial Times noted: “With a grasp of tiny detail and the bigger picture alike, he controls every aspect of his museums. Although staff universally praise ‘Nick’ as accessible and efficient, one joked that he even chooses the crisps on sale in the café.”

Whether or not he chooses the crisps, he can choose the staff. Will Gompertz, previously the director of Tate Media and now BBC Arts Editor, described Serota’s “noisy entrance”, which was not a vulgar bellowing, but the clicking of shoes on the wooden floorboards of Tate Modern: “His presence at Tate … is such that the disembodied sound of his shoes has the same effect on his staff as the clock-eating crocodile has on Captain Hook (I know – I worked for him for 7 years).”

Serota has little tolerance for people who disagree with his doctrine, as Ivan Massow, Chairman of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, discovered in 2002, when he was about to be ousted for daring to condemn conceptual art as “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat that I wouldn’t accept even as a gift.” He was introduced (by Mick Jagger and Nicky Haslam) to Serota who arrogantly turned his back on Massow after telling him: “They have been too kind to you already. They should have sacked you two weeks ago.” So much for difference, challenge and debate in art.

Serota is the latest in a line of art fundamentalist Tate directors, who have put their personal preferences first to the detriment of an objective collecting and exhibiting policy.  He insists, “I think that as a public servant I should be here at the service of the public,” but it is a service that is defined narcissistically rather than one that takes any notice of what the public wants. This is shown by the failure of exhibitions such as that by Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain three years ago, when, in desperation to boost attendance, tickets were given away to those paying for another show there.

Gompertz expressed serious concern at reports from curators forced to show work they think is terrible. I was told by a friend of a now-retired Tate curator that the curator didn’t believe for a minute the gumpf he was spouting for a living.

It is undeniable that Tate Modern has been incredibly popular with visitors, but, as Serota observed (he can be remarkably frank at times), they “come as much for the building and its atmosphere as to look at the collection”. When there is a public demand for art which does not fit in with Serota’s agenda – such as the campaign for popularist painter Beryl Cook to be included in the Tate – it is dismissed with contempt.

Massow might easily have had Serota in mind when he described conceptual art as “the product of over-indulged, middle-class … bloated egos who patronise real people with fake understanding.” A classic example of this was Serota’s comment on the exhibition of former trustee Chris Ofili’s installation, The Upper Room: “The question is, will the visitors ever let us take it down?” (In due course it was of course taken down without any referendum – or hysterical protest.)

Tate trustees are allowed to serve a maximum of only five years, but Serota, appointed by Margaret Thatcher, has been in office for 25 years, recently prompting MP Robert Halfon, a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, to complain he had been in office “far too long”.

The effect of Serota’s tunnel vision is to create a stifling orthodoxy which permeates all the Tate’s activities. I keep discovering work by painters that I feel the Tate should have informed me about and realise my understanding of recent culture is deficient and in fact skewed as a result of the Tate’s indifference to developments that do not suit its rigid agenda.

This is exemplified in the current show. “Painting Now” is representative only of a narrow Tate view of painting now and I am not surprised to find it was so poorly attended when I visited. It does not reveal the real adventure that is taking place in contemporary painting. It is overall, I regret to say, irrelevant, unengaging and dull. It is a strangled choice that is the inevitable outcome of a zealot’s bureaucratic control.

Charles Thomson is co-founder of the Stuckists art group.


Charles Thomson is co-founder of the Stuckists art group Paul Myners photo: courtesy Fraser Kee Scott.

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