The rebranding of Britain: where's the beef?

How and why do you repackage a country and its culture? And what are the risks of doing so? In the week that the Tate Gallery becomes Tate Britain, what lessons can we learn from the experience of British Airways, BSE, the Millennium Dome and even Nazism?

Launching something is easy; you swing a bottle of champagne at it, it slides down the runway and that's it. A relaunch is a trickier business, inevitably accompanied by the possibility of failure and desperation. Hence all the injunctions that have been issued against "talking down" the relaunch of that beached, bloated über-marquee in Greenwich.

But the fancy footwork required to keep The Dome in business is as nothing to the leap of faith that will be required at the Tate Gallery at Millbank on Thursday, when a national institution and a nation will be relaunched together, under the unified brand-image of "Tate Britain", a museum for British art since 1530. Only Orangemen, xenophobes and those who can't afford to dabble in cosmopolitanism put their Britishness before all else. For the rest of us, it's a useful handle when other definitions won't do. Similarly, evangelists for the re-branding of Britain are usually those with the least to lose from a shift in national identity.

From Tate Gallery to Tate Britain is a hazardous step, although less alarming than "Tate Great Britain", which would be both unacceptable and unpronounceable. The re-branding of Millbank is overshadowed by the imminent arrival of its more glamorous associate institution, the "Tate Modern" at Bankside, which opens on 12 May as a museum of international art since 1900. On Thursday, the directors of Tate Britain will seize the opportunity to pitch their museum and its accompanying nation to the media, before the unveiling of Herzog and De Meuron's post-Gothamist building at Bankside. This means that we will have to wait until 2001 for Millbank's six new galleries, and a refurbished shop, main entrance and gardens. In the meantime, we'll always have Britain.

The difficulty of Tate Britain's task is revealed if one considers the following phrases: "German cars", "Japanese cameras", "British art". In the first two examples, the nation, or rather a national industrial policy, underwrites the value of the product. In the last, the product stands as guarantor for the quality and consistency of the nation. Constable is our link to an arcadian landscape of hedgerows and tilled fields; Turner, like the shipping forecast, reminds us that we're on an island.

Diminished industrial resources are used to construct a gigantic winged symbol of somewhere called "The North". The genius loci of Francis Bacon is pressed into service to maintain the aesthetic integrity of Soho, and Gilbert and George stand surety for what's left of Brick Lane. It is only in the last decade that contemporary art has been asked to perform this kind of national service, partly because the image of fortress Britain was already being replaced by a new vision of the country as a cultural reprocessing plant for the global economy. The contemporary art product stands not so much for a place called Britain, but for a global vector of British creativity and cultural vitality.

In the current edition of Tate Magazine, Hugo Young argues that Hogarth's famous painting, The Roast Beef of Old England, an allegory of the artist's arrest on suspicion of anti-French subversion at Calais Gate in 1748, is now no longer a viable national icon, and not just because of the BSE fiasco. Young argues that if the British can erase such images of jaw-jutting chauvinism from their collective consciousness, they will "see their country for what it is: hub, crossroads, filter, melting pot."

His conception of Britain as a "hub" of activity or a "filter" system is typical of the metaphors that have dominated thinking on rebranding Britain for the last few years. New fetish images of transmutation and multiplicity have replaced the defiant, castellated and immutable Britain of yore.

The results of this volte-face have not always been happy - compare the Bob Ayling of March 2000 with the man who, in 1997, confidently ditched the Union Jack livery of British Airways for a variety of "world images". These included designs freely and incoherently adapted from Highland tartan, Egyptian tents and Chinese calligraphy.

The philosophy behind these tribal doodles was a simple one - British Airways could become a more effective global player by incorporating the merely geographic and historical Britain within a "Britain brand agenda", a national-corporate mission. A successful re-branding exercise would, it was assumed, deliver BA the symbolic rights to the British concept. As Bob Ayling now knows, it wasn't successful and it didn't deliver.

It is worth remembering that the Nazi swastika, the most notorious tribal doodle of them all, was used as part of a similar but more effective strategy, in which a party badge became the national symbol of Germany. While it is fatuous to compare the aims and policies of the Nazi party with those of a modern corporation or a national gallery, the company or institution that dabbles in the black art of national rebranding is obliged to confront the example set by National Socialism.

Under Nazism, the German nation was re-imagined; not in terms of geographic borders or historical determinates, but according to the ideologies of racial supremacy and global colonisation. The re-branding of Germany in 1933 also launched a new mass market for "Germanic" goods. A plague of swastikas began to appear on everything from wallpaper to children's toys, prompting Josef Goebbels to introduce the "Law for the Protection of National Symbols" on 19 May 1933, to protect the Nazi brand agenda of "national awakening".

The brains of Tate Britain are acutely aware of the past horrors and present dangers besetting those who wish to modernise national identity, and last weekend, they assembled a slew of pundits at Millbank to address the topic of "Britain and Modernity". The pussyfooting and pirouetting that now accompanies public debate on questions of nationhood was amply demonstrated in the conference announcement. It declared that the panellists would ponder "the ways in which the tensions between tradition and contemporaneity have been negotiated in different fields of British culture", which suggested a nationwide crisis, requiring professional intervention and the utmost tact. Britain was an unexploded bomb, missing since Second World War, and the conference would defuse it.

The artist Cornelia Parker helpfully provided the audience of "Britain and Modernity" with some guidelines on the controlled demolition of national icons, when she talked us through her piece in which a garden shed was blown up by the British army. It seems apt that a totem of Britishness should be exploded by the agents of the Crown, and entirely predictable that Humpty Dumpty should have been put back together again as "Young British Art".

Many of the artists who came to the fore in the early Nineties have rejected the YBA label, because they saw their achievements in direct contrast to the timidity and sclerosis of British institutions and the fossilisation of a national aesthetic. Gavin Turk's early oeuvre targeted national icons one by one, from his styrofoam teacup emblazoned with the English Heritage logo, self-portrait with military beret and Union Jack, and the infamous blue plaque bearing the words "Gavin Turk, sculptor, worked here 1989 -1991", the sole exhibit in his flunked MA show at the the Royal College of Art.

The Turner Prize will continue to be held on the Millbank site under the Tate Britain brand, but it is hard to see how the concerns of contemporary artists can be reconciled with the approach to national identity set out in the new museum's inaugural display, "RePresenting Britain 1500-2000", which employs stereotypically "British" themes such as landscape, literature and the nude. Peter Conrad [Observer, 19 March] drew a comparison between William Hogarth's roast beef and Damien Hirst's sliced flesh, but these are not, as Conrad suggests, different aspects of the same national identity; they are examples of art about meat that have been made on different planets.

 

Tate Britain, and the exhibition RePresenting Britain 1500-2000, will open to the public at Millbank, London SW1 (020-7887 8000) on Friday (24 March)

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