Revolutionary art movement or just catching up – Edward Lucie

Looking at the official art galleries here in Britain (all temporarily closed as of this post) – most notably those located in London – it is immediately apparent that a revolution has taken place.

Take, for example, the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain, and closely aligned with those two, the Serpentine Gallery, and what do you find? Yes, each of them is currently hosting an exhibition of work by a black artist. The Tate Modern features works by South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Also, an installation called Fons Americanus by sculptor Kara Walker. Tate Britain is hosting an exhibition by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – “enigmatic portraits of fictional people”. The Serpentine presents an exhibition of works by the American painter Jennifer Packer. Of course, the two largest institutions also offer other works of art, but the unanimity is somewhat surprising.

Zanele Muholi Qiniso, The Sails, Durban 2019 Tate Modern

It is also instructive to note a similarity of approach between the artists I have just listed. All are figurative. All of them are incredibly professional, perfectly in control of what they are doing. None of them, compared to the several generations of radical modernists who preceded them, are in the least experimental. The Serpentine website, for example, describes Jennifer Packer’s exhibition as containing “portraits of artists from [her] New York circle, monochrome paintings, intimate interiors and still lifes of flowers”. In other words, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect to get from a member of the turn-of-the-century French Nabis band. Nothing more radical stylistically than that. The era of visual innovation is over.

Jess, 2018 Oil on canvas 76.2 x 61 cm 30 x 24 inches Collection of Ursula Burns Photo: Jason Wyche

Jennifer Packer Jess, 2018 Photo: Jason Wyche

What matters now is the context. These are political offerings, meant to be seen in the context of not just the gender of the artists who made them, but also the assertion that “Black Lives Matter.” From the end of the 18th century, that is to say from the time of JL. Beginning with David, Western art has often had a politically radical edge, but it was usually in opposition to, not in tandem with, the ruling establishment at the time. The situation you see at the Tates, and also at the Serpentine, is quite different. It’s not just extremely competent figurative art with nothing scary about it. It is also an officially sponsored and tightly controlled cultural product. Those who run the show, rather than make the art, undoubtedly see themselves as impeccably progressive. They do, however, intend to offer moral leadership to what they see as an unenlightened public. I suspect that the art produced and shown in this paradoxical context will be best judged in hindsight.

Top photo: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Courtesy of Tate Britain 2020

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