Many years ago, Herself and I attended an avant-garde orchestral music premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. The tickets were free, given by a friend of one of the featured composers. The new works were book-ended by pieces by Webern and, I think, Panufnik, music that had evident quality, even if the genre was not that appealing. One of the premiered works was especially dire, a structureless cacophony which at one point involved the musicians moaning into their instruments. A curious tension spread across the audience as several score of people fought to remain silent against great provocation. Eventually, the dam broke. Someone audibly sniggered. More chuckles broke out, with the occasional “Oh dear…”. As the piece ended, a phalanx of bright young things applauded and cheered, whilst the rest of us clapped politely and had a good laugh. Essentially, part of the audience had decided that we were not listening to a valid creative act, and we were not sufficiently intimidated by the concert hall setting to avoid making our feelings known.
On a grey, cold day in April, I had a similar experience in Margate. To declare an interest, I passed the 1960s growing up in Margate. It was a run-down dump of a town then, and has gone down-hill since. Recent attempts have been made to re-vitalise the corpse, presumably by planners unfamiliar with the plot of Frankenstein, not least by building the Turner Contemporary Gallery by the harbour. The rationale was that this exciting and challenging new enterprise would attract cultured folk from far afield, bringing income, innovation and a whole new raison d’être to the Old Town. No doubt somebody went to Bilbao, saw the Guggenheim, and thought “We’ll do that!”. The connection with J.M.W Turner derives from the great artist having spent some of his boyhood in Margate, returning quite regularly in his later years. Any other connection between one of the great craftsmen of British art and the gallery that bears his name is inappropriately fanciful.
The building, designed by a fashionable contemporary architect, is a characterless light industrial block. Dull walls, albeit with agreeably large windows, support a sloping monoplane roof. The nearby buildings around the harbour vary in style and material, but none of them resembles the gallery and it reflects nothing of them. Inside, the gallery is sparsely inhabited by artefacts that reflect the shallow pretentiousness of what passes for ‘art’ in our vacuous society. Metal plates lie in rows on the floor, squared-off logs are stacked up like Jenga. Yes: minimalism by Carl Andre. In another room, scratched and discoloured film runs through noisy old projectors, delineating incoherence onto the walls. Throughout, too many staff walk around, chatting with each other, periodically banging doors. Are the staff an installation? How would we know? Visitors roam the gallery, apparently perplexed, some of them all too clearly experiencing that same tension; am I supposed to take this seriously? What will happen if I actually laugh?
There is more art in the effortless flight of a herring gull than in the assembled output of these artists. If they take themselves seriously, they show themselves to be self-absorbed but not self-aware, unable to grasp that other eyes will see fatuity where they see significance. Or maybe that is a totally wrong-headed analysis? Another possibility is that many cutting-edge contemporary artists are fully aware of how little thought and craft goes into their work, but know too well that it will sell. And in a society in which nothing has value unless it has a price, extracting a price for something of little intrinsic value may have become a creative act in itself.
A visit to Margate is depressing at the best of times, more so on an overcast day when the East wind blows. The Turner Contemporary does nothing to alleviate this gloom, merely adding a sense of anger directed at those who extract a good living from old rope, whose lives and pretensions do nothing for the ordinary people upon whom this gallery has been imposed like some grandiloquent colonial project. Worse still, it takes in vain the name of an artist who would have seen though the meretricious nonsense in a moment, and who would have hated it.