Magazine article The Spectator

Today We Have Naming of Parts

Magazine article The Spectator

Today We Have Naming of Parts

Article excerpt

Last week, amid a welter of champagne and celebrities, a brand new London art gallery was launched on Millbank: Tate Britain. Guests wrote on a special graffitiwall, Madonna was there. Stories appeared in the newspapers. The only small mystery is that, as close inspection shows, it isn't actually brand-new. It's the old Tate, minus the modern foreign collection, which has migrated to Bankside. The new art galleries and new entrance at Millbank won't be ready until next year (at present work goes on behind screens along the side of the building).

Why launch it now? Apparently, there were fears that the Millbank part of the institution would be completely forgotten in the celebratory brouhaha attending the opening of the definitely, indisputably new Tate Modern in the old power station on Bankside (which will happen in May). So Tate Britain decided to get their brouhaha in first, as is fair enough. After all, we live in the age of public relations. Therefore what happened last week was either, depending how you look at it, a re-launch of the old Tate, or a pre-launch of the new. In any case, at least it gives us a foretaste of what the new Tate Britain will be like.

So what is it like? What we have on show, it seems to me, is an extremely ingenious solution to a difficult problem. The problem was created by the splitting of the old Tate - and the splitting was itself an ingenious solution to another difficult problem. The old problem was that the Tate was two museums in one - a collection of British art since the Reformation, and a collection of modern - that is 20thcentury - art from everywhere. Now that has been solved by the creation of a proper gallery of modern art, which is bound to be a colossal success:

But that in turn raises the question of what to do with the rest of it. What remains is a rather old-fashioned thing, a museum devoted to a national school. This, as Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, writes in the introduction to RePresenting Britain, the publication that accompanies the relaunch, is rooted in a nationalist, centralist Victorian ethic scarcely in harmony with 21st-century society. It is also the result of a chippy sense of artistic inferiority which goes back at least to Hogarth. Artistically self-confident nations such as France do not have pantheons devoted to their national art. The Louvre is quite sufficient.

But all of this makes little sense now that British art is doing very nicely thank you on the international scene (unlike the French stuff), and Britain itself is possibly in the process of being dissolved into the EU, and simultaneously dismantled into its component parts. Even naming the non-modem half of the Tate must have been a thorny problem.

Apparently, the idea of calling the new Tate twins Tate Bankside and Tate Millbank was floated, but then most people would have had no idea what was inside them (even assuming they knew where Millbank was). There are other possibilities which probably weren't considered. Tate Cool Britannia, for example, or even given this propensity for launching things a year before they happen, like Mr Brown's taxes - Tate New Labour.

On the whole it was probably best to call it Tate Britain and take on the conundrum of what on earth Britishness might currently be and try to ignore the suggestion that there is an antithesis between being British and being Modem (as, indeed, some people may feel there is). …

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