Jackie Wullschlager’s long weekend essay in the Financial Times tackles the success of London’s Tate Modern and its ability to attract visitors to the shared experiences we now call art. But the opening of SFMoMA, the paper’s critic argues, is a singular response to what the Tate has wrought.
Read the entire piece—especially Wullschlager’s argument for SFMoMA’s curatorial approach—but here’s a brief adumbration:
[T.S.] Eliot believed art’s evolving tradition created “the mind of Europe”, and through the 20th century the primary role of museums was still to preserve the canon. Tate Modern worked to a new reality: that 21st-century artists and their audiences are global, multi-referential, democratic, and easily bored. Replacing monument and hallowed masterpiece with fleeting experience and temporary spectacle — hanging out under Eliasson’s sun, hurtling down Carsten Höller’s slides — it has, since opening in 2000, reigned unchallenged as the world’s most popular modern art museum.[…]
Architecture confers authority in all great museums — Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim housing abstract paintings is the celebrated modernist example — but Tate Modern’s beyond-human scale exerts a particular kind of mastery: it encourages us to surrender to, rather than closely engage with, works on display. This is especially the case in regard to its immense installations, but the effect ripples on in the exhibition galleries. Counter-intuitively, feeling small brings liberation, the excitement of being swept away, not needing to judge or even make sense of the museum or the art. No place here for the old-fashioned, lingering connoisseur.[…]
But as established hierarchies collapse, and proliferating commercial galleries, fairs and online portals swoop in for the kill, the picture shifts. The market is drowning in overpriced baubles for the global super-rich. “Anyone can argue a case for anything”, one dealer told me glumly. What matters, what is any good, who decides? More than ever, museums determine points of cultural reference. And that means picking sides.[…]
Tate Modern’s achievement at being an emblem both of multicultural London and the globalised art economy, at balancing conflicting demands to reflect social issues and offer world-class glitz, and all this with free admission, is wholly admirable. It is not, however, what we really, really want — because that is revealed by what we are willing to pay for. Nine of the 10 most popular paying exhibitions since the museum opened have been monographic shows of dead, pioneering European and American painters, all but one men: in descending order, Matisse, Picasso, Hopper, Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Rothko, Lichtenstein, Klee, Miro. The exception — 463,087 visitors, below Matisse and Picasso, above the rest — is Damien Hirst’s solo show.