Visual Visual Arts
THE COLOSSAL BULK of the old power station is a forbidding, denying presence. The walls of Byzantium, the Ziggurat at Ur, the fortifications of Assurbanipal are nothing when compared to this massive mountain of 1950s brick. The entrance is al one end — directly from the road, from the mean streets of Southwark. It is an immediately, transformatory experience. The atmosphere is beguiling. It is as though Liverpool St station and the British Museum had been amalgamated with a trace of Vauxhall or Ranalagh Gardens thrown in. Thomas Rowlandson would have loved it. All London is flocking to Tate Modem and there is an atmosphere of promenade, a feeling of freedom. Babies in arms and in prams are allowed everywhere. The ethos is of a Sunday's day out. Indeed probably the most accurate parallel would be the sense of emancipated promenade that took place in the nave of St Peter's Rome in the early 1820s when all the English (protestant) residents in Rome congregated there, ignoring the High Mass being celebrated at the Altar of the Chair in the apse, and took exercise under the aegis of the then Duchess of Devonshire who was on very good terms with Cardinal Consalvi, the Secretary of State. Leo XII stopped such pranks the moment he came to the papal throne.
Tate Modern gives us all a merciful release from the impositions of our day-to-day existence. Entering the huge, gently sloping portal you feel immediately emancipated from the misplaced moral imperative of our suffocating and time-enshrouded quasicivilisation. It is truly a release from the stuffiness and triteness of our lives. Just like church used to be, come to think of it. Yes, the Tate Modern amounts to a new religion, a secular religion on the most generous of scales. it is the only opportunity in London to go to a venue for art that is untainted with the prissy "best-behaviour-ontiptoe" approach of South Kensington which, understandably, is quite incapable of escaping from its Victorian ethos of "culture for the gentle classes". The stasis of museums conceived and built in the 19th century was in its turn derived from the assurance and immovability of the great Whig country houses that flew the flag of international culture for some two 200 before.
Now everything is changed with the advent of Tate Modern. Art is not fixed. The museum is in fact not at its happiest when housing paintings. Nevertheless some of the individual rooms are stunning, especially when devoted to individual painters such as Patrick Caulfield, Mark Rothko, Frank Auerbach and others. These are really worth seeing. Again, never have Picasso or Matisse (in his collage The Snail) been more lucidly and splendidly displayed. Yet there is a worry. It is as though everything is relative; all milestones in art history that we have accepted so far are rendered incidental and pragmatic. There are not fixed points. You wonder as you wander — and it's lovely; babies en promenade. The atmosphere of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Puccini's opera Tosco, first act, almost? In the end it is this very freedom which is disturbing. I can suggest that the hidden agenda subtending the Tate Modern ethos is luminously illustrated by the quote from a remarkable theology essay, After Writing by Catherine Picicstock (Blackwell's 1999). On page 81, in a description of the philosophy of State i T1 early 18th century Europe she writes: "Although the virtuosic city claimed to be both immanent and free from tyrannical power, its government had a sinister aspect. For it involved a disguised projection of human power which operated not according to a consensus about its values and implications, but according to an unques
tionetl advancement of knowledge in the service of the promotion of hidden sovereignty. This structure of governance both presupposed and perpetuated a concentration of power at an absolute centre which was projected invisibly through the expansion of its repertoire, rather than visibly, as the overt legislator presented in Descartes' Discourse. Such authority cannot be questioned since it eludes detection. This betokens, therefore, a superlative absolutism which permeates invisibly the structure of the city. thereby gaining a hold which cannot be unravelled, isolated, or deposed . . . . I shall show how the same configuration of power, predicated on spatiality, is inscribed into the apparently innocuous structures of 20th-century language, thus continuing its untraceable infiltration of the city."
Having read this passage it is hard to forget the idea that Tate Modern, and its philosophy of mental emancipation, is not tainted, ultimately, with a post-modern version of that depicted political idea described by Catherine Pickstock.
The enormous and deserved success of Tate Modern is not to be sneered at. But, in a way, although it is emblematic of all our modern secular values, it also embodies the vast questionmark hanging over the whole of digital, mechanised, time-engulfing civil
isation that hangs over us, denying spiritual values. This is epitomised in the fascinating, yet repulsive, exhibition Between Cinema and a Hard Place on the upper floors of the giant museum. Tate Modern floats on, so to speak, immediately available from the street, a transformation of our awareness that is life-enhancing.
But, reminded of the hubris surrounding the building of the Titanic, one is left wondering when it will strike the hidden bulk of a Treasury iceberg that will tear a hole in it and claim, in spite of the evidence, that it is unsustainable.
That moment of impact may yet come.