Never tell an artist what to do

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The Independent Online

This, I can see, is a grave temptation: but like most temptations, it ought at the very least to be resisted. Not least because, in the end, by yielding to this particular temptation, you are only going to make yourself look ridiculous.

This, I can see, is a grave temptation: but like most temptations, it ought at the very least to be resisted. Not least because, in the end, by yielding to this particular temptation, you are only going to make yourself look ridiculous.

Philip Dodd, who has been the head of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London for the past few years, has resigned. In leaving, he took the opportunity to make some remarks on the subject of art in Britain now, and - this is the temptation - to offer some general advice.

This is what he had to say: "My odd feeling about Britain is that it has become curiously insular, for all of Tony Blair's talk of us being an outward looking people. Now the world looks bigger, noisier and more interesting than Britain does."

On the whole, once I read this, I felt a strong urge to groan painfully; and not just because Dodd's statement is nothing more than the bleedin' obvious dressed up as a serious criticism - I mean, I hope the world has always been bigger, noisier and more interesting than any single country can be.

But what he is really talking about is British art, and what he really means to do is to give advice. There are a number of reasons why Dodd should have held back from giving this advice, only one of which being that he is wrong. In the last few years, surely, British art has been unusually international in its interests - you only have to think of Rachel Whiteread's memorial to the Holocaust in Vienna - and artistic culture unusually well attuned to major foreign artists. I can't remember a time when significant foreign artists, from Sigmar Polke to Luc Tuymans, would so promptly get official surveys in London.

Is he right, however, to think that parochialism is obviously bad for an artist? Of course, in saying that "the 19th century belonged to Britain, the 20th century belonged to America and the 21st century is going to belong to Asia, China and India," what he is mainly doing is bigging up his new job as some sort of cultural diplomat, making links between British and Chinese art. But would British art really be improved by an attempt to reach outside its traditions, to draw on exotic, abstruse cultures - or would that inevitably be superficial and vulgarising?

This isn't a new question. British artists of the 18th century can fairly neatly be divided into those, like Reynolds and James Barry, who were interested in international trends and tried to incorporate Italianate styles into their work, and those, like Hogarth and Stubbs, who remained stubbornly English. It is an odd phenomenon, but artists who abandon their national style and try to become something else, like the Dutch Italianates of the 17th century, often become lesser artists. If anything, I think what is wrong with British art now is a hypnotised fascination with foreign traditions which can't be reproduced successfully, and which in the attempt produce some fairly superficial work.

What it results in, generally, is what Dodd seems to admire: something "bigger" and "noisier", if not always more interesting. It is slightly surprising that someone in charge of an art institution should equate big, noisy and interesting: after all, some of the greatest works of art, even now, are small, quiet and much more interesting than any number of raucous inventions. If he prefers Nelson's Column to Turner's watercolours, that is his own affair: but he is mistaken in his preference.

What is really wrong with Dodd's remarks, however, is that he has yielded to the entirely improper temptation to start offering advice to artists. I understand why people want to do this: creative artists often operate on such an intuitive level that they often don't quite understand, and can't quite explain, why they have done this thing rather than another.

What better, then, than for a museum director to come along and start telling them what they ought to be doing? Admittedly, Dodd has not been a great success at the ICA; if he has made it more financially secure than before, it is very hard to think of a single really memorable exhibition he has mounted, or a really good artist he has discovered; and one's impression, too often, is of wandering round a few rooms of disconsolate semi-invention.

If he envisaged himself telling one artist in particular: "You ought to be more cosmopolitan," even he, surely, would immediately see how absurd this sort of thing is. The fact is that artists do what they do, not always understanding why; and only a very bad artist indeed will listen to anyone's advice. If he wants to encourage and promote bad artists, and only bad artists, this is the way to do it.