Tate (the magazine) as transitory as fashion

How the Condé Nast-published art magazine expresses the current merging of consumption values and art

Once upon a time, the intimacy of a certain item of underwear was respected, and was only broken for a few close intimates. Nowadays, however, if you lay out several ten pound notes for a pair of knickers by Dolce & Gabbana, you want everyone to know.

This is why you put on a pair of hipster trousers and a short top: every time you bend over the label on the waistband of the knickers becomes public property.

This celebrated couple of designers is among the advertisers in “Tate: international arts and culture”, the magazine published by the museum in London.

The contents of the magazine have a lot to tell us about recent developments in contemporary art, a genre which up to less than 10 years ago was produced for a close circle of friends.

Now contemporary art is high fashion. It is no accident that the magazine, the official organ of one of the current places of pilgrimage, as secular as it is populist, for those seeking the Avant-garde, should be financed by Condé Nast Publications whose main publication is “Vogue”.

This Vulgate of contemporary art has all the rhythms of a fashion parade—for both designers and models. The designers are perfectly aware that the importability and extravagance of their products gives them much in common with the products of the artistic Avant-garde. Quite reasonably they want their citizens’ rights, as exhibitors in museums and large art fairs; and they demand to become the biggest sponsors in the production and promotion of contemporary art.

In Tate’s publication, our introduction to the very latest manifestations of the Avant-garde is via the glamour exuded by the alabaster thighs of a Prada model or the feline glance of a femme fatale dressed by Louis Vuitton.

Of course, going for gold in order to support the art of today is perfectly acceptable, and this is what the designers are doing. But the protagonists in this circus, the curators and artists, are presented as if they were top models.

Image matters, but it is not the image of a work of art, it is the image of a personality. And like top models, curators rise and fall with lightning speed. Yesterday, the Naomi Campbell of the biennales was Enwezor, the black curator; today, the male equivalent of Nina Moric might be Lars Nittve, except that the latter’s career, which culminated in the directorship of Tate Modern, is overshadowed by his collision with Nicholas Serota, the celebrated head of the Tate Galleries and the Armani of the art world.

What about the artists? In the pages of the magazine an artist like Christian Boltanski, who has been using the remains of dead bodies from the mortuary for the past few decades, is presented as a kind of Jacques Tati, as if this were the in-house magazine of an airline.

Matthew Barney is portrayed as being as intelligent as Oscar Wilde. In a few days’ time Tate-Vogue will publish an issue devoted to the award ceremony for the Turner Prize, an event which has the same relationship to art as “Who wants to be a millionaire” with Chris Tarrant has to culture.

This is as it should be: contemporary art has to be transitory in order to create the desire to consume, and exhibitions should last no longer than the private view, at which seeing is less important than being seen (after a couple of days the videos will stop working and the gallery assistants, as horribly beautiful and impossible as Versace’s women, will snap at you when you ask for information).

What about museums of contemporary art? Having got to grips with the conceptual oxymoron inherent in the need to make historic what is as yet simply dateless, they devote themselves to the cult of the ephemeral.

Tourists in London may never see Big Ben, but they are perfectly familiar with a former power station in Bankside, full of objects that are difficult to understand.

Culture? It has to be like the Turner Prize, a talk show in which (as the Tate magazine tells us) everyone, in true Warholian fashion, can enjoy 15 minutes of fame (“Everyone’s a winner”).

In order to feel important you have to feel that you are participating, even if it’s only as a spectator watching the live broadcast on Channel 4.

The fact is that, just as you do not have to see every biennale to be like Serota, the bra and knickers by Dolce & Gabbana will not necessarily turn you into the two lustful dumplings opposite page 16.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 132 January 2003