Gentleness: the latest sensation in art

It is not only in visual art that people are looking for something quietly reassuring in these dark days

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If you go down to the Tate this week, you're in for a small surprise. Or a few small surprises. Stuck to post-boxes and lamp-posts around the gallery are some tiny paintings executed on vinyl sticky tape. When I first caught sight of one of these little oils on a pay-and-display machine, showing a gentle view of the street scene that I was standing in, my spirits lifted. There is something incredibly charming about the idea and its execution.

If you go down to the Tate this week, you're in for a small surprise. Or a few small surprises. Stuck to post-boxes and lamp-posts around the gallery are some tiny paintings executed on vinyl sticky tape. When I first caught sight of one of these little oils on a pay-and-display machine, showing a gentle view of the street scene that I was standing in, my spirits lifted. There is something incredibly charming about the idea and its execution.

Charming – now there's an adjective I haven't used that much about art recently. And gentle, there's another one. When this exhibition, Days Like These, was launched, one of the curators, Judith Nesbitt, told the press that the exhibition would show off a new spirit of gentleness among many of its artists.

And there is definitely something in this statement. Most of the contemporary group shows I've been to over the last decade in London – from Sensation six years ago to Apocalypse two years ago – have relied on disconcerting, even shocking, artworks for their biggest impact. There are artworks in this show, too, that aim to disconcert you emotionally or aesthetically. But I found that the art that I was spending most of my time in front of was rather different. A new gentleness; that seems to sum it up.

For a start, there are those unobtrusive oil paintings by Margaret Barron in the streets around Tate Britain that quietly reawaken you to the scene that you're standing in. Then there are views of suburban calm, by the painter George Shaw, who depicts ordinary spaces around council estates with soft nostalgia. Then there is the video work by Kutlug Ataman, in which the owner of Britain's biggest collection of amaryllis plants sits in her suburban home and discourses on the beauties of her flowers, even shedding tears when she describes having to cull them.

Then there is the work that lends its title to the exhibition, a video by Mike Marshall that simply shows flowers in a sunlit garden shivering under a sprinkler. This, like the other views of gardens and homes, is not some David Lynch view of suburbia, with surreal currents lurking just under the surface. The video is just a celebration of something very ordinary that also manages to get across a surprising poignancy.

And these aren't the only examples of the kind of art that gives this disparate exhibition its particular charm. Although there are artists here that are putting across the usual grandiose statements, there are many works that are exploring this rather quiet view of the world. And when I visited the gallery, the people around me seemed to be looking at these works with particular interest.

This kind of art may not have the immediate impact of the most daring conceptual art, but it has a very strong pull right now. For instance, at the end of last year I was struck by the new direction taken by Michael Landy. He is the artist who mashed up all his belongings – every single thing he owned – and threw it all away, in a big space he hired in Oxford Street.

After that shocking gesture, it was hard to imagine where Landy could go next. But after a while he began to try something very different, making detailed and elegant etchings of tiny plants. To be honest, it wasn't the quality of the art that interested me so much, as the idea that was behind it – the idea that this kind of quiet, sincere art could capture an audience that had been bludgeoned for so long by grand gestures.

It's not only in visual art that people seem to be looking for something quietly reassuring in these dark days. The sort of films that are being most celebrated now are films in which emotional sincerity is more important than glitz or big bangs. At the weekend, the Baftas were expected to divide up the honours between Gangs of New York and Chicago; instead, The Pianist and The Hours took the highest accolades. Both of them are unselfconscious weepies, films in which the directors tug directly at your heart strings.

Indeed, The Hours has become the runaway success that it is not because it gives you a chance to see the radiant Nicole Kidman wearing a silly nose. People love it because it is so sincere in its emotional impact. Its message – that the proximity of death makes life all the more precious – is a poignant and a reassuring theme for our times. It is, in many ways, a sentimental film; however, one thing that you could say about much of the art and the film-making that is so successful now is that it isn't afraid of being utterly sentimental.

I am well aware that for every film-maker, artist or musician I put up as evidence of this new gentleness, you would be able to put up one who specialises in glitz or gore, in egoism or exhibitionism, in cruelty or craziness. After all, critics have just been lamenting the popularity of "mean TV" – the way that reality television shows prey on people's vulnerabilities and that comedy shows celebrate embarrassment. That's true, but alongside that kind of television there has recently appeared another strand: "nice TV", perhaps.

Some of the reality television shows that have hit the spot recently don't push bitchiness so much as camaraderie. You may have watched Jamie's Kitchen last year, in which the overexposed chef overturned our expectations of an egotistic star and proved himself to be, well, nice: a sincere and gentle chap who worked well in a team of ordinary people. And now we have Operatunity, a sweetly sympathetic version of the competitive reality shows, in which one woman who is blind and another who was working at a supermarket checkout have been encouraged to realise their dreams of performing with the English National Opera.

I'm certainly not saying that this kinder spirit in artistic enterprise has swept the board everywhere. But I am saying that in all sorts of disparate art forms it seems that people are seeking some sort of reassurance, a softer look at the rhythms of everyday life.

After all, what lies behind the extraordinary success of Norah Jones, whose low-key talent scooped an extraordinary five Grammys earlier this week? You can't make great claims for her music, charming though it is. But audiences, especially American audiences, have gone overboard for these ruminative melodies that not so long ago would have sounded just a little too soft around the edges to attract such fervent acclaim.

These are dark days, no question about that. Perhaps it is the very harshness of our political situation that makes anything that can convey a humane and generous spirit seem altogether more powerful than it might have done a few years ago. People in the West are showing a readiness to confront the horrors that lie ahead, but alongside that political realism we are also looking for comfort.

It's entirely understandable if we now want some reassurance that there is a place for gentleness and humanity in our lives. For a long time we have said that the only great art is the kind of art that challenged us, that the best sort of popular art is the art that made us feel a little uncomfortable.

If we are now looking for a sort of comfort, it does not have to be an escapism, but more of a return to the ordinary beauties and poignancy of everyday life. And many artists and film-makers and musicians, our dream-makers, are ready to give us that comfort, for now.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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