Dostoyevsky would love this guy

Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s dubious wunderkind

3 minute read
Serota, by Paul Harvey: Is it art, or just marketing?
Serota, by Paul Harvey: Is it art, or just marketing?
The July 2 issue of The New Yorker arrived with a profile of Nicholas Serota, the man "who changed the culture of Great Britain." As director of the Tate Gallery in London, Serota has been credited with "making the British comfortable with contemporary art, really engaged and ready to see it." The man has been praised and vilified by the press, and abhorred by me. Naturally, I dug in, hoping to find the answer to my question: What's his magic?

The article describes Serota as a wunderkind of the art world, who draws record crowds to his exhibitions and brings youthful excitement to the London art scene. But this is the man who helped bring the gimmicky likes of Damien Hirst to unprecedented fame. This is a man who entices crowds to renovated warehouse spaces to see sawed cows pickled in formaldehyde.

Serota is said to have rendered the museum experience more accessible to greater numbers of people. All museums today are challenged with such goals. But Serota's notion of "art" usually falls more under the rubric of marketing than of any traditional definition of art.

Video art, performance work and "sculpture" of the sort Hirst produces and Serota has championed has its proponents entrenched in the art education system, the art market and the museum world. The interactive experience in museums will be increasingly anticipated by patrons, and rightly so. But none of this may be considered art in the long term— unless these new forms yield to certain artistic principles and stand the test of time.

Damien Hirst's celebrated shark work, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, may some day fade from celebrity and thus the public memory. The shark will rot, and the interest in replicating the work could dissipate, just as interest in Turner watercolors can dissipate. But the Turners will continue to astound and teach those sensitive and energetic enough to study them. The shark in the present and in the future can offer nothing more than titillation.

That such a work ever became popular and celebrated in the first place reminds me with amusement of the fate of the "cultured" man in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novella, The Crocodile. "At last with a final gulp the crocodile swallowed my friend entirely."

Great art can be a challenge to decipher and experience. It requires an effort that more and more people seem loath to exert. Why struggle with history or contemplative experiences when one can be über-cool just by showing up?

Thanks to the contributions of wealthy individuals and foundations in Great Britain, the funhouse experience, a day at the carnival, horror and peep show art can now be had for free. Britons who are steeped in tabloid culture and too impatient to consider a sensitive take on, say, Turner watercolors (or, for that matter, a "difficult" contemporary piece), will feel quite at home with this carnival art. It's no wonder the Tate is packing in the customers, and no wonder Queen Elizabeth seemed "grumpy" and not entirely pleased at the recent opening of the Tate Modern.

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