I have fallen foul of the British Prime Minister, or, to be more accurate, the Prime Minister’s web site, specifically that part of it which allows anyone to post an online petition to Gordon Brown (he, in case you hadn’t noticed, is now the British PM and Tony Blair departed a while ago).
What I want to petition about is the Director of the Tate gallery, Sir Nicholas Serota. I have nothing against him personally–indeed, the contrary. He has been most affable on the whole, when he has encountered the Stuckists art group (which I co-founded) on the steps of Tate Britain, protesting against the Turner Prize each year and displaying a reproduction of my painting, which shows him behind a large pair of red panties, wondering if they are a genuine Tracey Emin artwork worth $20,000 or just a worthless fake.
When a campaign I initiated into the Tate’s purchase of its own trustees’ works resulted in the Charity Commission’s ruling that the gallery had been acting illegally for the last 50 years, Serota said on BBC Radio 4 that the Stuckists had “acted in the public interest in this instance, and they don’t irritate me. I think that as a public servant I should be here at the service of the public, including the Stuckists.” Quite so.
I thought the least I could do was to continue to act in the public interest and communicate to the Prime Minister the widespread public dissatisfaction with Sir Nicholas’s artistic policies at the Tate. The public do after all pay for it, but have never been able to say whether they think they are getting their money’s worth. This, I considered, would be a chance for them to do so.
I carefully read the rules on submission at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk and studied a selection of both rejected petitions and those currently online. So far 29,000 have been submitted, 14,601 rejected, 6,000 finished and 8,500 still live, with a total of 5.8 million signatures from over 3.9 million different email addresses (it’s obviously a hobby for some people).
At the time of writing, the most popular one with 528, 379 signatories is a request for “a new public holiday, the National Remembrance Holiday to commemorate The Fallen and our Nation, with the holiday falling on the second Monday in November each year, the day after Remembrance Sunday.” I noted also that accepted petitions could include opinions. After all, that is what a petition is to start with, so I felt I should express mine. I submitted my petition, which read as follows:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to reassure the public that he will veto any reappointment of Sir Nicholas Serota as Director of the Tate gallery.
Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate gallery since 1988, has pursued a narrow agenda of new media, namely gimmickry and junk, at the expense of the traditional art of painting. Work he has acquired or promoted includes a radio and coat hangers, a cow cut in half in formaldehyde, a tin of excrement, a light going on and off in an empty room, fun fair slides and a crack in the floor. His belief that his policy on contemporary art and boring videos meets a public demand is a delusion.
The Charity Commission found in 2006 that the Tate had acted illegally in the purchase of its own trustee Chris Ofili’s work, The Upper Room, for £705,000. Trustees are bound by the Nolan Principles, including “selflessness”. This has clearly not been enforced, and is in marked contrast to David Hockney’s donation of his largest ever work, “Bigger Trees Near Warter”.
The Tate trustees will decide by 31 August this year whether to renew Sir Nicholas’s contract, which is with the Prime Minister’s approval.
Just in case there was any doubt as to the validity of the contents, I also appended references to press articles etc. to substantiate my facts. I considered that I had been quite restrained, as the “tin of excrement” is actually called titled, “Artist’s Shit” on the Tate web site.
I sat back happily awaiting its uploading within the time frame specified of 5 days, only to receive within a couple of hours an email telling me it had been rejected as “potentially libellous, false, or defamatory” and inviting me to submit a revised version. I immediately sent an email asking them to inform me exactly which statements were the offending ones. After a day, I didn’t get a reply, so I sent in an ultra-sanitised version to be on the safe side:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to state that he will veto any reappointment of Sir Nicholas Serota as Director of the Tate gallery.
Sir Nicholas Serota was appointed as Director of the Tate gallery in 1988 on a seven year contract, renewed in 1995 and again in 2002. It expires on 31 August 2009, and the appointment of a Director for the next seven years must be decided by 31 August this year. The appointment is made by the Tate Trustees with the Prime Minister’s approval.
In the meantime, the public response had already gratifyingly started. The Times ran a short piece on the rejection, and I immediately received an email from a David Shipley, informing me that he had sent in a petition to have my original petition reinstated. He said, “Being retired and having too much time on my hands, I just read the Times article and wondered what you could have said that would have been defamatory about Sir Nicholas. When I found out from your website that your petition was, as far as I could see, entirely factual (unlike the statements routinely made by politicians) I thought it was an abuse of process for the PM’s office to reject it so it seemed that a meta-petition might be an interesting approach.” I asked him who he was, and he replied, “I’m just a random member of the public who believes that the moral of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ was not that someone should have shut the brat up, and everything would have been fine.”
The next day, I received a further email from David. His petition to allow my petition had been rejected on the basis that his request was “Outside the remit or powers of the Prime Minister and Government.” It seems this is a government that can despatch battalions and jet fighters to far-flung lands at will, but does not have the capability to reinstate a petition on its own web site. Still, I thought, at least my squeaky clean petition was safe – or at least I did for a few seconds, until I noticed with shock another email in the inbox, just below David’s and with the same header, “Your petition has been rejected”. What grounds have they found this time, I wondered. Apparently my request was also “Outside the remit or powers of the Prime Minister and Government.”
It is very strange that it is outside the remit and powers of the Prime Minister and Government, as the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 (c. 44) 1992 CHAPTER 44, Schedule 2: The Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery, states: “3 (1) There shall be a Director of the Tate Gallery who shall be appointed by the Board with the approval of the Prime Minister”. It is somewhat worrying that those acting on the Prime Minister’s behalf do not know what his remit and powers are. I have submitted a new petition quoting the Act. However, I don’t hold out much hope.
Updates will be posted on http://www.stuckism.com
CHARLES THOMSON is co-founder of The Stuckists art group. He can be reached at: email@example.com