Magazine article The Spectator

Followers of Fashion

Magazine article The Spectator

Followers of Fashion

Article excerpt

Kingsley Amis once encountered Roald Dahl, in a slightly improbable literary exchange. The latter urged the former to take up writing for children. Amis demurred, but Dahl pressed the point. 'The little bastards would swallow it, ' he insisted.

Something similar applies to the rest of us and museums. You can put almost anything in a museum, and the public, young and old alike, will go along and look at it -- provided, of course, it is interesting (but that proviso, no doubt, also applies to children's books).

Consider Peter the Great, founder of modern Russia. He accumulated a number of unusual exhibits in his private collection of curiosities, the Kunstkammer, in St Petersburg. Among these was an array of teeth personally extracted by the Tsar -- complete with descriptions of their previous owners ('a fast-walking messenger').

There were also live exhibits, notably a young hermaphrodite -- who eventually escaped, one is pleased to learn -- and a peasant from Irkutsk with two toes and fingers, who was stuffed after death. The Kunstkammer remains extremely popular with visitors.

Now, it would be wrong to claim the bloodthirsty and tyrannous Russian autocrat as a contemporary artist, but there are similarities between Peter and Damien Hirst. Hirst, too, is to found a private museum, it seems, at Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire. He recently bought this 19th-century country house for £3 million (half the price of his famous shark), and plans to arrange his collection of his own and other people's art in its 300 rooms.

These are apparently haunted by a 'ghostly presence', and the house is, according to the Observer, 'festooned with gargoyles and grotesques staring from the walls, including monkeys playing lutes and banging drums and a gentleman with a severe Victorian moustache, incongruously dressed in a loincloth, holding up the mantelpiece'. Some of the contemporary works on show at Toddington Manor should be as strange, and as grisly, as anything in Peter's collection. Personally, I can scarcely wait until it opens.

That remark is not sarcastic; I love all museums, but individual, eccentric ones especially. There is, after all, a great deal of conformism in the art world -- despite its bohemian appearance -- and always has been. At the moment we are in the midst of an era of museum expansion as vigorous as that of the Victorian age. New ones pop up almost weekly, while those that already exist throw out mighty new wings -- packed with restaurants, shops, educational facilities, auditoria, etc. -- most of which are designed by the same short list of internationally approved architects: Gehry, Piano, Foster, Herzog and de Meuron.

But the contents of modern art museums tend -- provided the funds are available -- to be rather similar. Each tends to have one Gilbert & George, one Gerhard Richter, one Richard Long, one Bill Viola, and so on. This is a notion of the museum -- as a selection of specimens which the connoisseur can compare and contrast -- which goes back, at least, to the Enlightenment. It is the governing idea behind the arrangement of the British Museum and the National Gallery, to cite two prominent institutions.

But that's not the only way to make a museum. The American minimalist Donald Judd compared such one-specimen-of-each collections to anthologies. 'A few anthologies are all right, ' he wrote, 'but some hundred in the USA alone is ridiculous. …

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