Tate goes woke: Why Tate Britain should drop the political posturing and allow its collection to speak for itself
Michael Mosbacher l Head of Liveable London
Tate Britain is not what it was. The great, familiar works from the Cholmondeley Ladies from the start of the seventeenth century to David Hockney’s 1967 A Bigger Splash are still there. The walls of the hulking edifice on the grounds of Jeremy Bentham’s Millbank Prison retain their shrapnelled pockmarks from the War. With fewer tourists since the pandemic a visit has in some ways become a more pleasant experience – although to be fair the tourist crowds have been a fraction of those of its sister gallery a few miles downriver ever since Tate Modern opened its doors in 2000. Nevertheless a visit has become a less comfortable experience if one does not wish to be accosted by the excesses of woke culture.
First Tate Britain closed its proper restaurant, the Rex Whistler – once known for its excellent and well-priced wine list – due to the apparent offensiveness of the mural on its walls. Diners were embraced by The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, a painting by Rex Whistler encompassing all four walls, an artist best known for his decorative murals in grand country houses. When the Tate restaurant first opened in 1927 it was described as “the most amusing room in Britain”. It was apparently a favourite place for BBC political editors to lunch their political contacts.
As part of Tate Britain’s £45 million rejuvenation in 2013 the mural was extensively restored – something of which much was made in the museum’s annual report for that year. The money spent on the restoration was rather wasted; those approaching the restaurant are now confronted by a sign saying, “The Rex Whistler Restaurant will remain closed until further notice”. The restaurant closed at the start of lockdown and has not reopened.
The reason? In one corner of the mural – a clearly mythical landscape of hunters, nymphs and satyrs – there is a black slave boy with a chain round his neck. The Tate’s ethics committee has pronounced that “the imagery of the work is offensive”. The slave boy is not easily spotted. When Labour MP Diane Abbott demanded on Twitter that the restaurant not reopen, she stated: “I have eaten in Rex Whistler restaurant at Tate Britain. Had no idea famous mural had repellent images of black slaves…. Nobody should be eating surrounded by imagery of black slaves.” Abbott was offended even though she had not seen the cause for her offence. Whilst the Tate claims no final decision has yet been made, the restaurant remains closed and there seems little prospect of it ever reopening.
In the light of Black Lives Matter, Tate Britain has updated the signage for some of its paintings. One of the major interwar works in its collection is Sir Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27). Widely regarded as Spencer’s masterpiece, it is a vast canvas depicting the Second Coming and the dead rising from their graves in the churchyard at Cookham – the artist’s home village, on the Thames thirty miles upriver from the Tate. The racial characteristics of the rising dead have become terribly relevant. A new sign reads:
“Most of the white people are local friends or specific biblical figures. By contrast, Spencer represents the group of Black people at the centre of the painting in a generalising way. They are not based on people he knew, but on images he saw in National Geographic magazine. Spencer intended to show that all humanity would be included in the resurrection, but in trying to make this point he reinforced racist stereotypes and divisions accepted at the time by most white British people.”
There are some oddities here. Why is Black deserving of the upper case but white only of the lower case? More significantly Spencer is making a comment on the universality of the Christian message – yet the gallery has felt obliged to talk about racial stereotyping and reinforcing prejudices. In his quest for models Spencer would have been up against a practical barrier in 1920s Cookham; it would have been rather difficult to find many black faces.
The signage for a rather less iconic work – John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation, a work simultaneously showing films on three screens in homage to the Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall – also has its oddities. Apparently, The Unfinished Conversation “addresses wider international political changes, including the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Vietnam war and uprisings in Britain”. Everyone will be familiar with Hungary and Vietnam, but what about the British uprisings? For those not immediately au fait with this nomenclature, the main event it is referring to is the Brixton Uprising of 1981, perhaps still better known as the Brixton riots. In Tate’s current show on British Caribbean art, Life between Islands, the same terminology is widely employed.
Tate Britain’s new fad for woke signage reaches its apogee in the gallery’s other current paying exhibition, Hogarth and Europe. Before entering one is confronted by a sign proclaiming: “This exhibition contains derogatory representations of race, gender and disability, and addresses themes of racial and sexual violence”. And it goes downhill from there; the paintings remain what they have always been – amongst the finest ever produced in Britain – but the signage provided by different commentators verges on self parody.
Next to a self-portrait of Hogarth sitting on a mahogany chair (Hogarth Painting the Comic Muse, 1757-8) a sign reads: “The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?” I rather suspect it can’t.
This particular gem is provided by Sonia Barrett, apparently a visual artist and sculptor. The Tate says this of Barrett’s own work: “Barrett’s practice centres on people, place and object-based commodification, performing furniture to explore themes of race and gender” [sic].
I am surely not alone in thinking it was so much easier when one could go to Tate Britain without having to read such nonsense. Sublime art does not need such exposition.