New versus old

March 30 2018

Image of New versus old

Picture: The Times

I enjoyed giving a talk at the annual Codart conference in Bruges earlier this month. I was asked to talk about Old Masters, New Audiences, as part of the theme of the conference, which was Old Masters, Old fashioned? Of course I argued that Old Masters weren't old fashioned, and for the most part I think the curators at the conference were optimistic about the future appeal of Old Master paintings.

But there's no doubt that confidence has been shaken amongst many musem professionals as to whether 'people are interested' in Old Masters any more. Why is this? As I heard at the conference, it is primarily a reflection of the art market. We all see these huge sums being bid for works by Koons, Hirst et al, by which even a £50m Rubens seems somewhat 'unwanted' by comparison. So at the conference I found myself, as I regularly do, trying to explain that this is a false dichotomy. That what passes for 'the contemporary market' is only a relative handful of between 50 and 100 mainly American, male artists, who happen to be the subject of the greatest speculative market the art world has ever seen. Therefore, it is wrong to equate this financial phenomenon with genuine popular demand for contemporary art versus old art. It is a provable fact, incidentally, that more people visit Old Master exhibitions than contemporary art shows. 

But really, it's too late to persuade many in the museum world of this, so alluring is the narrative of big money in the modern and contemporary art world. And so we've seen in the last few years an explosion in 'contemporary interventions'. This is when curators and directors, lacking confidence in old art, and having lost the ability to make it relevant and interesting to new audiences, think the answer is to hang a Hirst next to a Hals. And that somehow, magically, people who like Hirst will like - and 'get' - Hals.

The thing is, there is no evidence that this works. At the Codart conference we heard with some refreshing frankness from a curator at the Frans Hals museum in Haarlem that their hanging of contemporary works among the Old Masters - also called in museum parlance, 'trans-historical displays' - had succeeded not one jot in attracting new or bigger audiences to the Old Masters. In fact, if anything the new displays only succeeded in alienating existing audiences. (No surprise there - but what was surprising was that the Hals Museum is going to press on with its trans-historicalism) We also heard that the V&A's 2016 show Botticelli Re-imagined, which was purposefully crafted to entice a younger audience to an Old Master artist like Botticelli by mixing his works with those by a range of contemporary and modern artists, only succeeded in lowering the age profile of the V&A's usual visitor demographic by about 10%. 

It's time for museums to find confidence again in 'old art'. In my experience of talking to museum-goers, the only thing these 'interventions' achieves is to demonstrate to visitors that museums don't have confidence - and thus don't value - their Old Masters. It's like going into a restaurant, seeing the menu, and then being told by the waiter that actually everything's pretty rubbish. You'd soon get up and leave.

All of this is touched on in a recent editorial for the Burlington Magazine, which is well worth reading. The editorial was written ahead of the unveiling of Damien Hirst's new exhibition at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, from which all that magnificent house's Old Masters were cleared for yet more spots. Although that show touches on a different phenomena that contemporary interventions - that is, the need for much contemporary art to seek legitimacy in the security of an established heritage setting - it nonetheless stems from the same basic question:

As with museums and galleries, the popularity of contemporary art as a strategy for drawing visitors to historic properties can suggest a patronising lack of confidence in both the innate ability of the art of the past to engage and excite and the skills of curators to interpret it. The insight of artists into the work of their predecessors is often of interest but is no substitute for historical understanding. Although this is a well-understood objection, less attention has been paid to the implications for contemporary art of using it as at best an instrument for interpreting historic art and at worst a marketing tool. As Damien Hirst for one well understands, if contemporary art is of value, it is of value for itself and not for what it can do to refresh the image of heritage organisations. 

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