Tom Sutcliffe: It's time for tough love at the Tate

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I tend to think of Bullets Over Broadway when I hear about collaborative artworks, Woody Allen's 1994 comedy being a near-perfect parable of the ruthlessness necessary for high artistic achievement. In the film, a mob enforcer with only rudimentary education (he burned his school down) is given the job of looking after a gangster's moll who has been given a starring part in a Broadway play in return for a hefty investment.

Cheech, the gunman, has nothing but contempt for the literary types he encounters, but finds himself slowly sucked into the process of making the dreadful play better. Eventually his artistic ambitions are aroused to the point that he shoots the woman he's supposed to be protecting, because her performance is so terrible. Indefensible in human terms, of course, but absolutely justified on aesthetic grounds.

When I heard, just the other day, that Tate Modern were inviting the children of Britain to contribute to a new animated film, to be produced under the supervision of Aardman Animation, my first thought was that they'd better be prepared to disappoint a lot of children if the end result is going to be any good.

"Every child in Britain can be involved in the Tate movie," promised Tate director Nicholas Serota, announcing the project. Every child? In theory, perhaps. But it's going to be an odd kind of film if they all get to see their involvement on screen. And for every delighted child who hears his or her words, or sees his or her character sketch jolted into life, there are going to be a lot who'll have to console themselves (appropriately, given that there's a connection with the Cultural Olympiad) with that old line about it not being the winning that matters but the taking part.

There's going to be a lot of this kind of participatory stuff going on in the next few years, as the Cultural Olympiad starts trundling towards 2012. At the time of writing I don't know which of the Artists Taking the Lead projects – another Cultural Olympiad biggie – were winners (it should have happened yesterday), but the shortlist featured a slew of mass-participation art projects, from Nitin Sawnhey's Global Bedroom Orchestra (which aims to create a simultaneous orchestral event geographically dispersed across the globe) to Michael Pinchbeck's Sit With Us for a Moment and Remember, which hopes to enlist members of the public to sit on 2012 benches for 20 minutes at midday for a whole year, or David Lang's The Shouting Olympiad, which aims to assemble a kind of shouting choir to perform a specially composed piece of music.

Shouting in a celebratory fashion sounds (like sitting on a bench for 20 minutes) as if it's something that pretty much anybody could do – but there's a little catch in David Lang's description. "After rigorous coaching", he writes, "the members of the Shouting Olympiad will convene". How rigorous? He wasn't proposing, of course, to shoot anyone who was letting the side down – but would some less permanent form of execution have been part of the process? And if not, what kind of guarantee of quality could he have provided?

Similarly, when the little cartoon auteur who introduces the Tate movie project talks of a "a movie which I am directing and which you are making", where exactly does the balance of power lie between the two verbs? If it's with the makers, then the end result is likely to be exemplary in democratic terms, but cacophonous artistically. Everyone welcome and all contributions valued might be admirable as social policy, but totalitarianism and hard choices are what make durable art.

A lewd testament

"I approached this as a straight illustration job with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes", writes the fabled comic-book artist Robert Crumb in the introduction to his illustrated version of Genesis. He is startlingly true to his word – abandoning caricature for something almost sunday school in its directness. It's possible that the drawn-on sticker on the cover reading "Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors" is a subversive jab at the pious, but there's very little inside they could object to, apart from some mildly racy frames of begetting. Then again a faithfully literal account may itself be the most potent argument against this ancient text. Reading it straight through, as if it's a graphic novel, one finds a melange of depravity, lies, violence and petulant abuse of power worthy of a really shabby tele-novela. There's surrogate motherhood, incest, rape and exploitation of the poor, often carried out with the blessing of the Lord. Surprisingly gripping stuff, I have to say, but reading it I was reminded of the occasion when Evelyn Waugh and a friend bet Randolph Churchill that he couldn't read the entirety of the Bible in a fortnight. The idea was to get him to shut up, but as Waugh recorded in a letter the plan didn't work: "He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud... or merely slapping his side and chortling 'God, isn't God a shit!'". I'm betting he was on Genesis when he said that.

If Damien Hirst is smarting after the reviews he received for his show of paintings he might take some consolation in reading Poisoned Pens, an anthology of literary invective compiled by Gary Dexter, which demonstrates that there's virtually no reputation – however grand – that hasn't been exposed at some time to dismissive scorn.

Evelyn Waugh declares that he thinks Proust was "mentally defective", Kingsley Amis splutters about Dylan Thomas's "gonorrrrheic rubbish" and fantasises about "walking on his face and punching his privy parts", and Norman Mailer says that reading Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full is like "the act of making love to a 300-pound woman. Once she get's on top, its over".

Nobody's exempt. Kipling disses Flaubert, Ben Jonson is sniffy (in a rather loving way) about Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson is utterly baffled by the popular respect for Jane Austen, who he finds "without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world". It is absolute balm for the disappointed soul, I would have thought, but also full of support for one's own pet hates.

For some reason I particularly enjoying Arnold Bennett's schoolmasterly put-down of Virginia Woolf (left): "The form of her sentences is rather tryingly monotonous, and the distance between her nominatives and her verbs is steadily increasing".