By Withers, Rachel
Artforum International , Vol. 39, No. 2
TATE BRITAIN, LONDON/VARIOUS VENUES
"PEAS ARE THE NEW BEANS," declares a 1999 painting by Bob and Roberta Smith (aka Patrick Brill) in "Intelligence," the first of Tate Britain's triennial New British Art exhibitions. Trendspotters please also note: BritCrit may be the new BritPop. Curatorial glosses on "Intelligence" and the fifth quinquennial British Art Show (hereafter [BAS.sub.5]) agree that commercialism, ephemerality, and spectacle are Out, and engagement with audiences and social issues is In. With twenty-two artists, "Intelligence" is the largest show of contemporary art in the history of the Tate; [BAS.sub.5] comprises fifty-five artists and will tour nationally into 2001. The spin attaching to these major surveys merits a little scrutiny--nor least because they won't coincide again until 2015.
No one can miss the dig at "Sensation" flagged in the title of "Intelligence," but its organizers, Tate Britain senior curator Virginia Button and Edinburgh writer-curator Charles Esche, are vague about their show's precise character. "Intelligence is not only an intellectual activity," they suggest; "its emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities can be discovered" in artists' work and viewers' responses. The big pitch is that "this notion of intelligence" requires visitors "to come to terms with the work... themselves"--but even Britpackery's worst excesses demanded that; gallery visitors are perfectly able to question, assess, and make connections without curators inviting them (as here) to play spy. Elsewhere, the curators propose that "corporate government and global capital will require us to think in different ways.... If not in art then where is the questioning going to begin?" Here, spin gives way to sheer amnesia, and some two decades of artistic and nonartistic questioning vanish into thin air.
The exhibitors in [BAS.sub.5] were selected by artist Jacqui Poncelet, freelance curator Pippa Coles, and Matthew Higgs, cocurator at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts. Interpreting UK art trends in [BAS.sub.5]'s catalogue, Higgs directly addresses the so-called Saatchi Effect and its aftermath, picturing a '905 scene awash with" orthodoxy and complacency" and shallow, market-led spectacle, followed by a "curious, but positive, moment" as artists reinvest in "issues": "gender, race, class, sexuality, politics, idealism, boredom, and pleasure." This subtly conflates BritArt, the media construction, with '90s UK art, an under-visited region where a great many artists and others worked to sustain, expand, and refine a wide range of critical practices and debates.
Each of these accounts flatters (and perpetuates) the consumerist mentality that demands a constant flow of "new generations." Arguably, UK art's global reputation would gain more from a spot of revisionist history than from the announcement of a supposedly new critical mood. The shows themselves inevitably map out a bigger, more complex picture. Both offer an eclectic selection of "senior" artists (to give a partial list, Paula Rego, the late Donald Rodney, and Amikam Toren are in [BAS.sub.5]; "Intelligence" includes William Furlong and Michael Craig-Martin; Susan Hiller is in both shows). Neither ostracizes YBAs (Tracey Emin, Jonathan Parsons, Glenn Brown, Michael Landy, and Sarah Lucas appear in [BAS.sub. …