David Lister: Artists can't pick and choose the people who like their work

The Week in Arts
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Some years back, Patrick Caulfield's painting Fish and Sandwich was chosen by the administrators of the Government Art Collection to put on the wall of an embassy.

It nearly sparked a diplomatic incident. A committee decided that the filling of the sandwich looked like ham and, as the embassy was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this could cause offence.

Caulfield's dealer was asked if the painting could be renamed Fish and Pastrami, presumably to throw the Saudis off the scent, and then the artist himself was asked if he could repaint the picture to make the filling look like tomato. Not surprisingly, he refused, and the painting stayed in Britain.

I had thought this was the most bizarre incident to have occurred in the dealings of the Government Art Collection, but this week threw up another. The collection, which also gives ministers a choice of paintings to hang on their office walls, had delivered to arts minister Ed Vaizey his personal choice of works by Michael Landy and Mark Wallinger. As revealed in this paper, at least one of the artists reacted with fury to being hung on the wall of a Conservative minister. Mr Vaizey said that when he met Landy, the artist told him he was "horrified" that one of his works was in the minister's room.

It's not actually the first such incident. In the 1990s, the Conservative arts minister Tim Renton had a work by David Hockney displayed in his office and asked the artist if he could provide another to make up a set. Hockney refused, saying he was not particularly enamoured with Conservative governments, and particularly that one as it had introduced Clause 28 which banned material considered to promote homosexuality.

I feel that Hockney's response was right and Landy's is wrong. Hockney was asked not about a painting already legitimately bought by the government, but to donate other works from his own collection. That was the right time to make a political point about a particularly unpalatable piece of legislation.

Landy's work has already been acquired by the Government Art Collection. Artists do not check out the politics of every wealthy collector who buys their work. It seems a cheap gesture to complain because one temporary owner is a prominent Conservative. More importantly, it devalues the work. If art is to mean anything, it must have a meaning and an importance far beyond where it is hung and who is its temporary custodian.

Ah, Mr Landy and others might retort, but it was meant for the public to see, and now they are unable to do so. Actually, not so. What perhaps Landy, Wallinger and indeed the general public do not realise (as the Government keeps this remarkably quiet) is that members of the public are allowed access by law to individual works of art bought by the Government. So if they want to make their views known to the minister himself in front of the work itself they – and we – can.

But they would do better to reflect that the enjoyment of works of art are not confined to particular political persuasions. Art is for everyone, Tories included.

There is only one 'Top of the Pops'

The BBC is reportedly looking for a successor to Top of the Pops, the programme it axed in 2006. It plans to screen the new show next year on BBC3, the channel aimed at 16-34-year-olds, and aims to find a new format, a "Top Gear for music" as it is being called, without the traditional TOTP formula of several acts playing to a studio audience. The new format might include interviews with artists and exclusive access to new videos.

I think that's a mistake. The unique virtue of Top of the Pops, not replicated in any other music show since, is that it had appeal across the generations, especially when it was on BBC1. Families watched (and praised or criticised) the snapshot of the current chart together. The best way to bring back Top of the Pops is to bring back Top of the Pops.

Surrealism – the feathered variety

On the wall of one of the displays in the Barbican's excellent and haunting current exhibition The Surreal House, the curator tells visitors: "The cage, a symbol of confinement, has particular resonance across the whole of surrealism." Indeed, one of the works, The Wait by Edward Kienholz, includes a cage with a budgerigar in it. Sensitive to its visitors' love of birds, the Barbican has a notice next to this exhibit saying that individual budgies are in the cage for only a few hours every other day. The rest of the time they can fly free in a specially built aviary in the building.

Only, when I visited this week, the cage was empty. The symbol of confinement, with resonance across the whole of surrealism, had lost both its symbolism and its resonance. When I asked what had happened, I learned that the humane desire to give the budgies some freedom in the aviary had backfired. They had become rather upset when caught to do their spell in the exhibition, and it had been decided to let them all stay in the aviary for the last weeks of the show and keep the symbol of confinement empty. Surreal.