Where art hits a brick wall: Why must we admire 'concepts'? Tim Hilton deplores galleries that put publicity first

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, 'New Displays 1993' opened at the Tate Gallery. It's not a new exhibition but the fourth of an annual series of rearrangements of the permanent collection. Not a bad idea, given that the gallery owns so much more art than it can ever display, and this year, as before, there are some intriguing revivals and mini-exhibitions.

Among these smaller exhibitions are rooms devoted to conceptual and minimal art. 'Many people find this kind of art difficult to enjoy,' comments the guide, adding that 'in order to do so you have first to accept the whole idea of abstract art'. That's not true. It seems to me that the more you look at abstract art - I mean look at it, not 'accept the whole idea' of it - the less likely you are to enjoy Conceptualism and Minimalism. Some abstraction is major art. Most of it is minor art. And what is lacking in conceptual and minimal art is very simple: quality.

Look, for instance, at Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII of 1966. It's not objectionable as art, it's just not very good. And yet this is the sculpture that caused such a furore two decades ago, mainly because it is composed of bricks, not house bricks, as is often assumed, but firebricks, made from a kind of limestone. They are neatly stacked in two layers, 120 of them. The sculpture would be less effective if it did not have this regularity, indeed monotony, and if it had been made from an odd rather than an even number of elements. But who cares? Isn't there plenty of other, better art in the world?

We ought to care about better art, and the sad lesson of the bricks controversy is that it diverted attention from quality to publicity. That's what is still wrong. The difference is that controversy over minor art has now become part of the Tate's official programme. Unsatisfying though it is, Andre's brick sculpture is still better than most of the works we are regularly asked to admire when they are submitted for the Tate's Turner Prize. Two weeks ago in a newspaper interview, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, came clean about the role of the prize: publicity.

Dispute over minor, and less than minor, art is now part of the Establishment's agenda. I don't altogether blame Serota for the mess of the Turner Prize. He didn't invent it. But he's a career administrator and makes use of the available contemporary options. Hence the close links between the Turner Prize and the Eighties boom money, the world of the 'Patrons of New Art', who are represented on the Tate's board of trustees, and - in my view - treat new art as a superior hobby for the super-rich.

And blessed be the rich. I just don't want them cluttering up the private views I used to enjoy - where you met artists rather than sponsors. Since they are sensitive to each others' efforts, artists have long memories about the mood of their times. When, I wonder, did Conceptualism and Minimalism, those supposedly revolutionary and anti-museum developments, start to find a place in museums?

Certainly before Andre's bricks were purchased in 1972. At the Tate, two young curators were already recommending that the gallery should buy conceptual art straight from the artists' studios. They were Anne Seymour, not now at Millbank but married to the dealer Anthony d'Offay, and Richard Morphet, now the Tate's Keeper of Modern Art. Their enthusiasms were for Gilbert and George, Richard Long, Bruce McLean and Barry Flanagan.

In retrospect, this is neither surprising nor unjustified. It is part of the Tate's business to collect contemporary work. Sir Norman Reid, the director at the time, was perhaps a little dubious. He was, and is, an artist himself, and a good one. A painter with a marked influence from the old Scottish-French tradition, Reid found conceptual art as 'difficult to enjoy' as the writer of the Tate's present guide fears today's visitors may. But he stuck by his curators.

I recount this bit of history because we need a context for the bricks business. Controversy over minor art does not shed light, but history helps a lot. This is why I object to the kind of presentation we find in Gravity and Grace, currently at the Hayward Gallery. It's the first attempt to canonise the arte povera, anti-form and would-be subversive art of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Some of the work is so bad that it makes Andre look like Fra Angelico (which perhaps is why he isn't included). But there's a sort of justification for the badness. Was not arte povera designed to overthrow the notion of quality?

The anti-elitist sculpture (arte povera is never painting) relates to the confused political radicalism of those years. But Gravity and Grace doesn't examine seriously the politics of the time. The catalogue, taken simply as art or cultural history, is an intellectual disgrace. And it comes not only from a major gallery but a British university]

By which I mean Goldsmiths' College, today the fashionable centre of anti-art art. Gravity and Grace proclaims that there is a link between arte povera and the work we so often see in contention for the Turner Prize. And so I fear that highly promoted anti-art is now dominant, not among artists but in the minds of highly placed people who run our museums of modern art.

Am I het up? Yes, slightly. I just don't think that the art coming out of Goldsmiths' is any good. This is no particular quirk on my part. Many people in the art community feel the same way.

What does Henry Meyric Hughes, the Hayward's new director and a learned and cultivated man, think he is doing? He's making controversies about next to nothing. So is Serota at the Tate. No good can come of this development, the long-term result of the Establishment's embrace of anti-art. When will we start talking about quality again?

(Photograph omitted)