Is Britain Over?

J.J. Charlesworth on what national cultural identity and the 'Britishness' of art in Britain means in a globalised world, from the November 2014 issue

By J.J. Charlesworth

Voters in Scotland may have decided against independence in September’s referendum – a conclusive 55 percent voting against – but as far as Britain’s mixed-up politicians are concerned, the success of the ‘no’ campaign isn’t to be taken as a ringing endorsement of the idea of a United Kingdom. Rather, British politicians are desperate to push on for more devolution of powers, with Prime Minister David Cameron and other political leaders squabbling over plans (proffered as an inducement to voters by all three major British political parties) to pass new powers to Scotland anyway (er, it was a ‘no’ vote, right?) while pushing on to do the same for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This may not appear to have a great deal to do with the world of art, but the paradox – of voters voting to stay in a political union, against a political class obsessed with devolving it into oblivion – points to the crisis of the old, nineteenth-century model of the nation-state, a crisis driven largely by the processes of globalisation, and which has ramifications for cultural institutions based on the assumption of national identity.

It’s interesting to consider how the idea of a ‘national’ cultural institution has mutated in the last decade or so. While the major European art centres have national institutions committed, in part, to representing national artistic production – Tate, the Pompidou, the Nationalgalerie – the sense that these institutions are particularly committed to presenting a ‘national’ perspective on contemporary art is on the wane, especially in Britain, and nowhere more clearly shows up the fading importance of national identity than the awkward division of Tate Modern and Tate Britain, in which Tate Britain was relegated to the care of Tate’s collection of British art since 1500, while also being committed to representing contemporary artistic production from Britain. Meanwhile, Tate Modern gets to put on all the exciting international stuff.

As the artworld has become a truly international cultural system, it has tended to mirror the way in which the model of the old, Western nation-state has dwindled in importance

Much ink has been spilled on why Tate Britain has languished while its young sibling has thrived since its opening in 2000: it’s in the wrong place; Tate Modern always gets the blockbusters over Tate Britain; the competition at the ‘traditional’ end of the art-exhibition market is tougher, and so on. But the fundamental problem for Tate Britain is that no one has much of an idea what ‘British art’ is supposed to mean any more, or why you would want a special gallery to show it in. While Tate as a whole may hold the national collection of British art since 1500, and shows modern and contemporary British artists across its four galleries, Tate Britain is uniquely stuck trying to define what’s particularly British about its contemporary programme. You may be born or based in Britain, but that’s little reason, as an artist, to want to show at Tate Britain over anywhere else. So Tate Britain, under director Penelope Curtis (who took up the post in 2010), has started to come up with ever more experimental and eccentric curatorial takes on the history of British art – shows on British folk art, on the British art critic and patron Kenneth Clark, on the history of iconoclasm – often to the consternation of confused critics.

The ‘Britishness’ of art in Britain has always been an unstable formula, even from the opening of the original Tate Gallery – the ‘National Gallery of British Art’ – in 1897. The Turner Prize, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, rose in the public imagination during the cultural exuberance of the ‘cool Britannia’ years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, alongside the international rise of the ‘young British artists’. But as the artworld has become a truly international cultural system, it has tended to mirror the way in which the model of the old, Western nationstate has dwindled in importance, in favour of the smooth functioning of the globalised economy, while multicultural pluralism has replaced strong nationalist identities. Tate may be number one in the world of art power, but as a global brand for contemporary art, not as the epitome of Britishness, while London continues to emerge as one of the new generation of ‘global cities’ – modern, outward-looking, cosmopolitan, international – and anything but ‘British’.

As Britain sets out on the uncertain road of tearing itself into even smaller bits and pieces, one might wonder when it will be time to rename Tate Britain. But rename it what? 

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue.