Andrew Graham-Dixon: Putting the boot into British art

Extracted from the British Art lecture by the art critic at Tate Britain in London
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The Independent Online

The peculiarity that characterises the British approach to British art is a perennial love-hate relationship with it.

Take, for example, a 14th-century Lady Chapel in Ely, which wasn't always as bare and restrained as it is now. The space was transformed some 200 years after its creation when the Reformists smashed every trace of painted statue telling the life of the Virgin Mary. They not only destroyed the images but also left the trace of their rage.

Although the walls had been hacked flat the visual residue was in the form of a destroyed image of their own hatred of images. This was a terribly British form of art criticism; we call it putting the boot in.

My concern is for what was at the centre of the British artistic experience. One of the reasons Protestants of the Reformation wanted to destroy art was that it beguiled people, the result of the very fact that it was so alive, to believe in it: the worry that ignorant people might actually start worshipping this Madonna rather than that Madonna and go to that church as a site of pilgrimage rather than another because they believed that the statue in that church was embodying her holiness more fully than another statue.

Essentially the legacy of British art is that neither the abolished Catholic tradition nor the Protestant century of destruction will ever triumph.

The Britishness of British art rides on a tension between two aspects of a sensibility; a Protestant distrust of religious exuberance, colour and decoration and, on the other hand, a tremendous yearning for what has been lost (as a result of the Reformation).

The British tradition has developed as a dialogue between these two things.

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