Good programme on BBC4 last night.
Maybe it's not unusual to see Matthew Collings presenting a programme on 10 years of Tate Modern, but I did get the impression that he was slightly bemused by the whole topic; he seemed to have a certain ambivalence about his relationship to those times too. Back in the heady 80s, Collings personified the new enthusiasm of the era that saw Tate Modern opened amidst a helazapoppin atmosphere of champagne orgies and acid house music. Last night's programme saw Tracey Emin reminiscing on multiple bottles of fizz consumed in lift parties, followed by drunken contemplation of the art inaugurating the event. With such abandon, the new avant-garde was launched.
Never off late night arts programmes, especially BBC2's epochal Late Show, Collings extolled the virtues of Hirst, Emin and the enfant terribles of Brit Art. Engaging and effusive, Collings drew the confidence of the art brat pack and the brickbats of those who believed modern art and modern life was rubbish. Undaunted, Collings brought the message via accessible art TV on C4 and books designed to be understood by those unfamiliar with the arcane musings of the contemporary art cognoscenti. Riding the wave of Tate Modern, now liberated from the physical constraints of Tate Millbank, Collings caught the vibe of the time and began to speak directly to the public with the aid of an estuary English that omitted 'ing' from words and pronounced superlatives like wonderful 'wunnerful'.
Then it all went sour. In the noughties, Matthew, or Matt as he preferred to call himself, declared his dissatisfaction with contemporary art and the media circus of the Turner Prize. Instead he turned back to the renaissance and the baroque to sing the praises of Titian, Rubens and Velasquez. In this decade I was looking at more modern art, and thinking about its link to the old masters, so I was fascinated not only with the series, but Matt's turnaround: Matt's Old Masters aired on Channel 4 in 2003 followed by a book of the same name. MOM saw Collings take a Kenneth Clark travelogue approach: now emoting in front of Rubens's paintings in Antwerp; next, cruising on the Grand Canal whilst making connections between Titian's painterly style and the splashes of artists like Pollock and De Kooning. He still pronounced wonderful 'wunnerful though, but it didn't bother me- I was intrigued by this mix of blokey classlessness and Clarkean erudition.
Colling's reservations about the art he had previously praised to the skies was echoed by a number of modern art dissenters, most notably Robert Hughes who produced a memorable T.V. revisionist essay, New Shock of the New in which Hughes- recovering from a dreadful car accident- manoeuvred himself with walking stick around Damien Hirst's art whilst almost prodding it with the disdain of a man encountering dog shit on his mid-day stroll. Hughes's deep discontent with modern art was emphasised by the production of an original biography of Goya; again, a modern art pundit had turned back to the old masters in disgust. Something of that same mood came through in last night's programme when Collings, far from the dressed-up Tate image of the noughties, strolled round galleries with shirt out, collar wide open, and an air of having just come out of the pub. Gone was the breathless enthusiasm of old; in its place was a quiet resignation brought on by years of looking at this stuff. Walking around what looked like a pile of bright sherbet on the floor of a corporate gallery occupied by faceless robots in suits, Collins seemed ill at ease and not wholly sold on what he saw in front of him.
Perhaps my favourite part of the programme was Colling's interchange with Tate Modern director Sir Nicholas Serota. Sir Nic – another Collings demotic touch- spoke of the inconvenience of storing modern art at Tate Millbank - now Tate Britain. In the bad old days, the public got to see only a fraction of modern art, said Sir Nic in aggrieved tones. It still rankles with him that modern art took decades to be accepted in this country due to snobbery and museum politics. One of the paintings in this tip of the iceberg category would have been Matisse's Snail which Collings described as "charmingly quaint". Still, you had the feeling that Collings was even less happy with the art that had sidelined Matisse and his "quaint" contemporaries at Tate Modern.
I know a few experts in modern art, and to them the attitude of Hughes and Collings is incomprehensible. One told me that he saw Hughes's rant as completely unjustified- the curmudgeonly complaining of a grumpy old art critic. They are more forgiving of Collings, perhaps because his disquiet with modern art has taken a less fractious tone than Hughes. I'm not an expert on modern art; I teach courses on art of all periods, but I'm still a tourist there. I think I can understand why Collings and Hughes got fed up with the plethora of art produced in this decade though. Walking round Tate Modern last autumn, I had the feeling that the excellent and canonical art of Matisse, Picasso, Pollock et al was being swallowed up in the maw of frankly unimaginative crap purchased by those in thrall to the ideology of the new.
After 10 years, Tate Modern's significance and importance has diminished, a point wittily underscored by Collings who started this programme from inside a model of the Tate which was itself inside a museum in Berlin. Could there be a more telling metaphor of where Tate Modern stands after 10 years?
It's become a work of conceptual art in itself, and the art inside merely incidental.