The revamped Tate Modern, complete with a brand-new, 10-floor extension called the Switch House, ‘will redefine the museum for the 21st century’. That, at least, is the claim made on its website.
And it’s true that Tate Modern’s focus has shifted. It has self-consciously turned to art produced by women and ethnic minorities, and drawn exhibits from Africa, Asia, Latin America and ‘the margins of Europe’; it has embraced the political over the aesthetic, featuring exhibits that challenge power relations and ‘question the function of the museum’; and its new galleries in the Switch House concentrate on post-1960s art, including conceptual art, performance and participative art, film, video and photography. As one critic notes: ‘The pleasures encouraged here are bewilderment and awe, rather than age-old museum values of enlightenment and learning.’
This self-consciously political attempt to reconfigure the museum is not really a surprise. Both the Tate director, Nicholas Serota, and the director of Tate Modern, Frances Morris, are old New Lefties, and former students at Cambridge during the 1960s and 1970s, when artists and art students played a leading role in political activism. They are committed to carrying this political project forward through art and art curation.
Morris herself has spoken enthusiastically of the changes in art, and the challenges to the canon, during the 1960s. ‘Before [the 1960s]’, she tells Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times, ‘the template was still paintings on walls and sculptures on plinths. After it, there was a general rejection of representation, and artists started doing and showing things that audiences could walk around, pick up, play with, throw away – or think about in a different way, for example, politically.’ In the case of the Tate Modern, she continues, ‘we are asking people to take a position – that’s very empowering’.
But does this curatorial emphasis on the political come at the cost of art’s aesthetic value? The author Howard Jacobson once wrote that if an artist’s work is political, it only works as art if it transcends politics. It is doubtful many of the works in the Switch House pass this test. The curatorial choices seem to have been driven by political perspective rather than artistic merit. Or, as art critic Matthew Collings writes, Tate Modern’s overriding message now appears to be ‘Meaning must always entail moralising’.