I knew it would be a mistake. It always upsets me. I'd gone into Tate Modern to look at an interesting, serious exhibition about some recent art history: the once-trumpeted revival of painting in the early 1980s. But then I thought: why not take a peep at some of the permanent displays? They're always changing in small ways. Let's see what's going on. So I dropped in on the big sub-section called States of Flux. And there was the big mistake.
The first room is still good, with one of those clever juxtapositions that are Tate Modern's strength. Two works, 50 years apart: the futurist statue by Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, and Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art air-battle Whaam!. It's clever because of what it lets you notice. The licking-flame energy trails of the sculpture have exactly the same forms as the licking-flame fuel explosions in the painting.
And then you go into a big gallery of mainly Cubism, which is good too. And then you turn left into a room called "After Impressionism". And there it is. Three walls have paintings by Cézanne, Munch, Matisse and Bonnard. But fixed on to the fourth wall, sticking out of it, are three waxworks of straight arms – in suit sleeves, in a row, in unison, all doing a fascist salute. Oh please!
"Maurizio Cattelan is known for his highly provocative work," begins the caption. Oh no! Cattelan is an Italian artist, born in 1960, who does 3D cartoons, which – like jokes in opera – wouldn't be very funny without the high art context. (His most famous one is an effigy of Pope John Paul II struck by a meteorite.) And "Tate invited Cattelan to make a series of interventions into the collection displays." Oh, for pity's sake!
This work is the first in the series. "Its appearance is especially jarring in this room of essentially apolitical works, mostly from before the First World War. The three salutes may act as a reminder of the horrors that would be unleashed in the decades to come." Oh help!
Provocative? I'll say. I'm utterly provoked, in that special way you can only be provoked by smug and pointless idiocy. The gesture is more than distracting. It's outright destructive of any work of art in its vicinity. Three fascist salutes are unignorable. Its symbolism is too charged, its grip too reflex. It can't but jam all the signals in the room.
If Tate had broadcast a series of loud fart-noises, or showed a porn film in the corner, or sprayed custard over the pictures, it would have roughly the same effect. And the aggro is just upped by your sense of the gloating stupidity behind the idea. Let's punish those paintings for being so apolitical! For not knowing what was going to happen later! But is anyone seriously being reminded of anything? Is the intervention more stupid about post-Impressionism or about fascism? Who can possibly have thought this a good plan?
More frustration at the show I came for, Paintings From the 1980s. If you were around then and paying attention to art, it was a pretty present thing. Suddenly, painting was back and burgeoning. In 1981, a grand survey exhibition was held at the Royal Academy called A New Spirit in Painting, making prophetic claims. And all over the world, newly invented painting movements sprung up. In Italy, the Transavantguardia was announced. In Germany, there were the Neue Wilden. In the USA, there was New Image. The message was: goodbye to Minimalism and Conceptualism, and hello again to the figurative, romantic, expressionist, heroic, primitive, mythical. It already sounds like a racket, doesn't it?
Paintings From the 1980s is a good show to have, because it's good to be reminded. But it's a small show, and it's hard to commemorate the phenomenon adequately with just 11 big paintings (one by each of the main artists involved) and none of the surrounding hype and machination. All those once big names, Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Markus Lüpertz, AR Penck, David Salle? Who mentions them now? Who would cross the road to look at them? If ever an exhibition needed mood-music and back-up from archival video and cuttings, with time-lines and diagrams to demonstrate the working of the art world, it's this one.
Titanic days they were, when Julian Schnabel – the New York artist who painted clumsily on to surfaces of broken crockery – was declared the greatest painter since Jackson Pollock, or, what the hell, since Picasso. He was about 30. In 1982, his British reputation was secured with a show at the Tate. It was also (little bit dodgy) in effect a Saatchi promo-show. Three-quarters of these Schnabels were owned by Charles Saatchi, who hadn't yet opened a gallery, and whose fame was still as Margaret Thatcher's adman. The show opened a couple of weeks after the Falkland Islands were retaken.
You need all that, and more, to get a proper sense of historical context and contrast. Stand today and look at Schnabel's picture called Humanity Asleep and you just feel – eh? Here's someone struggling with limited abilities and crunchy textures to raise some sort of power, but it's sure not coming. Or look at Jean-Michel Basquiat's Tobacco vs Red Chief. The marvellous boy of the NY scene, higher graffiti-artist, wild and dead young, he shows the gifts of a lively magazine illustrator – likewise Chia, and his trademark chunky lads in their mythical charades. Lüpertz and Mimmo Paladino: simply hopeless, with their nth-hand recycling of bits of Picasso. As for Penck, how was it possible to take an interest in his fields of fake caveman sign language? I remember earnestly trying to. They had energy? But no, they didn't.
They were all chaps, and the whole thing had a very masculine tone, or boyish at any rate, both in its content and its impetus. Away from cool; let's get a feeling of adventure and derring-do back into art. Lets have some geniuses again. That was the heart of its appeal. True, some people said it was macho, even fascist. But many truly believed. The Tate did. Check the pictures' labels and you'll find they were purchased hot off the easel. That's the risk with being a museum of record. The art was big, it had to buy – and end up with a bunch of works it can only bring out from the warehouse as historical curios.
Georg Baselitz is the sole survivor, the one who could put on paint with vitality, just on the edge of out-of-controlness. For the rest of the gang, they look like an overblown and enfeebled re-run of CoBrA, the post-war European wild painting movement, which really did have its moments of energy, and wit too.
It's a valuable show, though, not for the work, but for the lesson. Here's fast-track posterity doom, and all within living memory. What it teaches is not so much that reputations rise and fall – we knew that – but how at any time, and all the time, we need to believe. There must always be something coming along to keep up our faith in art, to keep the show on the road, and we can't be too choosy about what we pin this faith to.
It takes very steady nerves to say: there is nothing worth getting excited about at the moment, let us wait and see. Besides, we did go into art for excitement. And everyone has an allegiance to the present. So of course (look about you) it's happening now, and Tate is buying and urgently stocking up the unvisited storerooms of the future.
USB Openings: Paintings From the 1980s, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), to 13 AprilReuse content