David Lister: The Week in Arts

The end of the blockbuster? Not very likely
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, made his first public announcement this week. He announced the end of the blockbuster exhibition. As first announcements go, that's pretty dramatic stuff.

Blockbusters are so called because they are shows of the most popular artists which attract enormous numbers of visitors. So, if one may paraphrase, he is effectively saying: "From now on we will show only fairly popular artists, and we will, of course, have a much smaller number of visitors, get less publicity and be less talked about."

It's the sort of philosophy that doesn't go down terribly well in the corridors of New Labour generally, and in the corridors of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in particular. They rather like the idea of lines of first-time visitors snaking around Trafalgar Square to see a "not to be missed" show.

Dr Penny's predecessors Charles Saumarez Smith (Titian and Velazquez) and Neil MacGregor (now at the British Museum, where he is showing the Terracotta Army) certainly have a soft spot for the blockbuster. But Dr Penny is a hugely respected figure and not one to put his foot in his mouth. So there must be a logic to what he is saying. There is.

For a start he has niftily managed to get a lot of publicity for his forthcoming exhibition, the decidedly non-blockbuster Italian Divisionists, an artistic movement that is not normally plastered all over the news pages of the national newspapers, as it was this week because of Dr Penny's statement.

This is just the sort of show Dr Penny wants the National Gallery to concentrate on, provocative challenges to art historical orthodoxy, shows that offer a new way of looking at artistic movements and reassessing their place in the hierarchy. The Italian Divisionists, a 19th-century movement, which some claim revolutionised the medium of painting at a time when Italian art had lost its pre-eminence of earlier centuries, are an interesting response to the French Impressionists, but not remotely as well known, and not remotely as good box office. Your heart rather goes out to the marketing department that has to forget words like "at long last" or "sold out" and design posters instead to trumpet the claims of the "quite interesting" or "academically contentious".

Dr Penny says that too many blockbusters show people images that they already know. He declares: "The responsibility of a major gallery is to show people something they haven't seen before. A major national institution should be one that proves a constant attraction to the public. What is important is encouraging historical and visual curiosity in the general public."

Up to a point, Dr Penny. Everything that he says applies, and applies perfectly, to regular visitors to a gallery. They do indeed know many of the famous images in blockbuster shows; they do indeed have historical curiosity about art and want to know more about lesser shown movements.

But what about those people who don't go to galleries, even the National Gallery, very often? And that's quite a sizeable part of the population. They just might pick up on the buzz around a blockbuster show and be tempted to see it. Once inside, they are likely to wander into other rooms and be struck by the treasures of the National Gallery's permanent collection.

Blockbusters are a gallery's way of shouting to the nation that art is exciting and stimulating and a "must-see". And that is why I predict that Nicholas Penny will be against blockbusters only until the next blockbuster.

Presidential airs

Senator Barack Obama may or may not be the next president of the United States. But he already has affected the one trapping of power, which comes to all those who aim at high office. He is thinking about which actor will play him on screen if Hollywood does his life story. Obama wants it to be the Men in Black star Will Smith, pictured. He says that he and Smith have actually discussed this, adding: "Will and I have talked about this because he has the ears!"

From a cultural perspective, Obama makes a common mistake here. Choosing an actor to play you should not be a matter of physical resemblance. And one should never ever pander to one's fantasies by choosing the best-looking star around. It is more important to be played by someone who can get to the heart of a character and convey the emotional journey involved. That is why, when my life story is filmed, it will have to be a toss-up between Daniel Craig and Brad Pitt – purely, because they are both thoughtful actors.

* The appointment of Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, as chairman of the British Film Institute should be good news for the organisation. Mr Dyke brings a wealth of knowledge and experience. He also brings a reputation for common sense. And that is why I hope that his first act will be to reinstate the National Film Theatre.

This nationally and internationally known name was changed last year – in an act of monumental ego as well as cultural vandalism – to BFI Southbank. That unwieldy and bureaucratic title for a much-loved national film centre is absurd.

You don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist to wonder at the stupidity of axing one of the few names in the whole of the arts that had brand recognition. It also had history, pride and sentiment in its title. Bring it back, Greg.

Comments