Thomas Sutcliffe: We should relish forgotten art

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The Independent Online

Coverage of the Hayward Gallery's new exhibition How to Improve the World - drawn from the Arts Council Collection - has understandably tended to emphasise what you might call its curatorial coups - the Bridget Riley, bought for a snip, or the Turner Prize-winning artist, acquired years before his art world apotheosis into Recognised Good Thing. That's the strongest narrative here obviously - an underfunded and entirely altruistic operation nipping in below the radar to build a matchless collection of British art. Check out the Hayward website for the exhibition and its timeline does something similar.

If it's the 1940s then it must be Bacon and Bomberg. And if it's the 1970s then check out this early Gilbert and George or Patrick Caulfield's image of the apogee of interior chic - Dining Recess, in which moulded polypropylene chairs surround a circular table beneath a globe light. Sharing space with these images you'll find period details - Mrs Thatcher, say, or the Channel 4 logo - which reinforce the sense that the artworks on display are simultaneously timeless (their presence testifies to the collection's success at picking winners) and timely (they are as much a part of the historical record as press photographs or commercial ephemera). We expect good artworks to pull this trick off and we expect a good art collection to be able to spot the ones that do. And the Arts Council collection also seems to expect this of itself.

"Through its policy of adventurous and timely acquisitions, responding rapidly to developments in artistic practice, the Arts Council Collection is exemplary in its scope, vitality and eminence", they write in an overview of their purpose. This is the collector as cat-burglar - pocketing the jewels before the fat cats even turn up. But fascinating as the Hayward exhibition is as a retrospective of the vitality of British art over the last 60 years, and impressive as some of its hits have been, I can't help feeling that the "mistakes" of such a collection may be as interesting and valuable as its successes.

Acquisitions by the Arts Council Collection are chosen on the basis of the recommendations of a rotating committee, which insulates it from the kind of charges that have been levelled at the Turner Prize. If it is prey to the whims of a self-perpetuating elite, then the effect will at least be diffused by a regular change of personnel. But whatever the composition of the panel - and however insulated it might be from art world special interests - it is inevitably going to be susceptible to one widespread prejudice: that the future will be just as interested in us as we are. To put this another way artists are likely to be selected for inclusion in the collection because those spending its modest purchasing budget think they have some kind of future. Anything else would be rather perverse, after all.

And yet everyone making the decisions must know that the majority of the works they select will fall by the wayside - as far as posterity is concerned. This is not always because they are more mediocre than we might recognise at the time but sometimes because they are simply unlucky (an element of cultural life which doesn't always get the credit it deserves). For countless reasons unconnected with inherent talent one artist will blossom into florid and propagated reputation while another withers and is forgotten. Unfortunately, since our view of the past is just as self-centred as our view of the future, it's all too easy for us to ignore the fact. We see the 1940s as Bomberg and Bacon... not their now neglected contemporaries who may well have loomed larger at the time. The simple fact is that any contemporary selection from a historical collection like that of the Arts Council is a kind of vanity.

We're inclined to select the works that point interestingly towards us - our judgements and our concerns - and ignore those that don't. And because such choices further cement reputations (and generate "influence" - by which contingent success comes to seem something destined and ineluctable) they help to mask the truth of a particular period's culture - which is always more variable and contradictory than we remember. The good thing about the Arts Council Collection is that much of the hard evidence has been accumulated; the bad thing is that it is difficult for anybody but an art scholar to see it, and even they are likely to bend to the popular and established perceptions about the unfolding timeline. What would be interesting now, to supplement the Hayward's exhibition of the best of the collection, is a kind of Salon des Oubliés - a tribute to our sustained cultural amnesia. It would involve all the "mistakes" and career cul-de-sacs of the past and usefully remind us how vulnerable our current certainties are.