Christopher Frayling: The media don't realise the popularity of British art

From a speech by the chairman of the Arts Council, given at the Royal Society of Arts, in London
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The Independent Online

When the Momart warehouse in Leyton burned down last year, my first reaction was a rush of adrenalin. As chair of the Arts Council, I'm responsible for the Arts Council Collection, pieces of which were stored at Momart - luckily not damaged. And as rector of the Royal College of Art, I'm responsible for the college's painting and sculpture collection, which is mercifully warehoused by other companies. We'd considered moving it to Momart quite recently.

When the Momart warehouse in Leyton burned down last year, my first reaction was a rush of adrenalin. As chair of the Arts Council, I'm responsible for the Arts Council Collection, pieces of which were stored at Momart - luckily not damaged. And as rector of the Royal College of Art, I'm responsible for the college's painting and sculpture collection, which is mercifully warehoused by other companies. We'd considered moving it to Momart quite recently.

But the thing that struck me as most strange - and disturbing - was the reaction of some parts of the media. Sniggering attention was focused almost entirely on the "Young British Artists", and Tracey Emin's tent in particular. No mention of work by earlier or even parallel generations of artists.

It was only when the dust had - literally - settled that the scale of the loss was realised. Then the sniggering comments about Tracey Emin's tent began to subside a bit. But there were still articles about how none of the lost art was irreplaceable, how most contemporary art was throwaway art anyway, how at some level it was all a con trick.

No one put the other case - that we should have much more confidence in the work of our contemporaries. If just one Old Master drawing had been destroyed, think of the hoo-ha there would have been. But above all, I think the media - with their knee-jerk reaction - were out of step with their readers and their audience on this one.

In recent years, the contemporary visual arts have enjoyed not just a sustained period of productive activity, but a much higher profile than ever before. The coverage of the fire, though, made me wonder just how far we have come since the Carl André "pile of bricks" debacle at the Tate a generation ago.

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