Martin Gayford

Hug a hoodie and Gilbert & George

Martin Gayford on why David Cameron should embrace contemporary art

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I know that just now people are queuing up to propose new policies to the leader of the opposition — wind turbines, green taxes and what not — but even so I have a modest proposal for the David Cameron reform agenda. Now that he has encouraged the hugging of hoodies and smiled on single-sex partnerships, I suggest that he embrace another group traditionally loathed and reviled by some of those who count themselves natural conservatives, with both upper and lower case ‘c’. I mean, of course, contemporary artists.

This is an ideal Cameron issue. If he were to seize the high ground of the art world, he would at once left-foot the Labour party, and infuriate those of his own party he wishes to annoy. He would also, not a negligible consideration, be right.

Modern art has long been a favourite subject for jeremiads delivered by those who feel the world today is going — or has already gone — to the dogs. Mary Kenny, for example, writing recently in the Daily Telegraph, catalogued a number of phenomena that almost anyone would deplore, such as school children ‘behaving loutishly on public transport, with nobody daring to correct them’. She threw into this list of barbaric iniquities, ‘as for the rubbish of contemporary art — don’t get me started’.

Similarly, a while ago, Quentin Letts, discussing the well-publicised problems of the Tate Gallery and its purchase of work by one of its trustees, reassured the reader. ‘It is not my intention to delay you with a fogeyish rant about the decadence of the Damien Hirst set and their meaningless, contemptible, prattish, immoral, ugly, derivative, cack-handed, talentless installations.’ One suspected that he was, nonetheless, tempted to do so.

In fact, though such rants do occasionally still get penned, this battle is over. It finished, as far as Britain is concerned, the day that Tate Modern opened its doors six years ago. That week a distinguished, conservative painter of my acquaintance, himself an erstwhile member of the don’t-get-me-started brigade, remarked to me, ‘You know, this is game, set and match.’ And it was.

After a century of philistine consensus about modernism in the arts, the British have suddenly caught up. Tate Modern is one of the most popular museums in London — indeed in the world (and that despite not having much in the way of actual exhibits, as a result of that same philistinism and consequent failure to buy enough works by Matisse and co. when it was possible). London has become a hub of the international contemporary art world, as was demonstrated again a couple of weeks ago at the Frieze Art Fair. Among the general population there is evidently a great deal of open-minded interest in new art; as well as a degree of lingering opposition in the saloon-bar, taxi-driving sector — though even there the mood is shifting. The last taxi-driver I hailed at the Tate turned out to be an avid Gilbert & George fan (he’d been to all their exhibitions).

Meanwhile, what used to be described as the Left has proved equally unable to deal with modern art. I have an abiding memory of Tony Blair at the opening party for Tate Modern in 2000. He was led through a vast throng of champagne-sipping art and media types. Two things were striking. One was that no one paid him the slightest attention (a foretaste of the universal disdain in which he is now held). The other was how uncertain he looked. The Prime Minister had just, it turned out, been ambushed by a question as to whether the works on show were sufficiently multicultural and anti-elitist.

On the Left there have always been doubts about modern art concerning those points. That was why the USSR suppressed a promising modernist movement in the Twenties and Thirties, and took the dismal road of Soviet Realism (loyally supported by leftist aesthetes such as the youthful Anthony Blunt). Socialists also suspect that collecting contemporary art is a rich man’s sport. It is: works by Hirst and his American equivalent Jeff Koons now change hands for millions.

On the old-style British Right, the worries are similar. One is that new art is frequently bought by new money. If you are the kind of person who looks down on those obliged to buy their own furniture, you will have a very low view of plutocrats who purchase Tracey Emins rather than inheriting Gainsboroughs. But that attitude is patently absurd (even Gainsborough was a young British artist once, and that was the time to buy him).

More understandable — in fact, I experience it myself — is the resistance that all natural small-c conservatives feel towards all change. Modernism is bound to be upsetting to us because it is deliberately designed to seem new and different — that’s why all genuinely new art, as the critic Clement Greenberg once observed, seems ugly at first. To the instinctive Burkean, believing in the wisdom of inherited tradition, contemporary art is bound to be jarring.

Viewed as a policy, however, dogged opposition to modern art must be judged an utter failure. It has consistently delivered the wrong verdict on all the big questions — Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Pollock — since Manet exhibited ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ in 1863. Of course, a great deal of contemporary art is rubbish — and always has been — but that isn’t the point. The important thing is that some of it survives and becomes, quite rapidly, the tradition of the future. Already, Pollock and Rothko, Warhol and Lichtenstein, even the minimalists of the Sixties, are mainstream taste.

If ever there was an attitude ready to be consigned to the wheelie-bin of history, it’s hating modern art. Even as a form of journalistic polemic that approach is slowly dying out (as the wistful tone of the quotations above suggests). So contemporary art is a perfect Cameroon cause — it’s optimistic, future-directed, unstuffy, vaguely alternative and yet market-oriented, widely popular, ignored by Blairites and open to anybody of any culture or background. I look forward to seeing the Leader of the Opposition at Gilbert & George’s big Tate opening in February. Come to think of it, G&G are also an example of a same-sex partnership, and they are extremely keen on hugging hoodies. I’m sure they would be delighted to see him.