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At any gathering of contemporary mosaic artists, the question of “What’s it going to take to advance the art form/genre/medium?” is likely to arise. One of two positions is usually taken: Change the Status Quo or Work Within the Status Quo – the Status Quo being the current hierarchy of the Greater Art World.
Last October, during the British Association of Modern Mosaic’s annual Forum at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the question arose briefly during the organization’s General Meeting. The conversation, which focused on the Tate Modern’s continued refusal to show mosaic, was continued in the article below which appeared in the organization’s newsletter “Grout.” We thank BAMM for the opportunity to present these thoughtful “head-to-head” arguments from Paul Bentley, BAMM’s Chairman 1999-2005 and the current Chairman, Gary Drostle.
What do you think it will take advance contemporary mosaic? We look forward to your thoughtful and constructive Comments.
Paul Bentley: “Modern Mosaic = Modern Art”
No one could doubt the success of the new venue for BAMM’s Annual General Meeting and Forum; the Victoria & Albert Museum is an impressive, world-famous building, and the Sackler lecture room featured the latest equipment and comfortable raked seating. Doubtless this explained why attendance in 2012 at least doubled that of previous years.
However, there was an elephant in the room and I took the liberty of pointing this out during our General Meeting.
Sir Nicolas Serota, the Director of Tate Modern, has always banned modern mosaics while allowing virtually anything else – bricks, beans, medicine cabinets, etc. A recent letter from his assistant confirmed the policy: “Sir Nicholas has asked me to reply on his behalf to confirm that we do not usually display contemporary mosaic at Tate. You are correct that we consider it a medium better suited to exhibitions at the V&A, which is the national museum of art and design.”
It seems they are aware that in 1970 the Tate did once lower its guard and let a modern mosaic slip in. It was Palpable Object by Paul Neagu.
And, of course, in 1923 Boris Anrep was allowed to install his floor mosaic Proverbs of Hell in Gallery 2 of what is now Tate Britain.
But the fact is today contemporary mosaic is not allowed in Tate Modern and will not be as long as Serota is running the place.
I maintain that by having its Meeting and Forum at the V&A Museum BAMM has given the impression that it agrees with Serota; that modern mosaic is best suited to the national museum of art and design.
It’s all very well mosaicists say, “We don’t need Tate Modern; all that matters is that we create the best mosaics we can, that we are true to our own artistic goals.” However one of BAMM’s stated aims is “to raise public awareness of modern mosaic art”. Tate Modern is Britain’s principal gallery of modern art; it has some 5 million visitors a year who end their visits thinking that they have seen a representative selection of modern art – even though there isn’t a square inch of modern mosaic in the building. I find that outrageous.
What’s to be done? I believe that we should publicize Serota’s continued refusal to exhibit contemporary mosaic. This could be done by using the media to our advantage; arranging for a television programme about the issue, using Twitter and Facebook to spread news of the Tate’s continuing stance. We might arrange for an exhibition of British mosaicists that would be so exceptional it would demand media coverage, and ask for Serota’s comments – perhaps even invite celebrity artists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst to contribute mosaics of their own.
I don’t think BAMM would be doing its duty if we just gave up and accepted that one of the world’s greatest galleries of modern art will never show works created using one of the world’s greatest artistic media.
BAMM Chairman 1999 – 2005
Gary Drostle: “Playing The System”
“Why are there no mosaics in Tate Modern?”
I have heard this question and the related question of “is mosaic art or craft?” consistently since I first joined BAMM many years ago. I can understand people’s frustration at this seemingly impenetrable wall facing mosaic art. However, I believe that these two questions are fundamentally flawed and derive from a misunderstanding of the contemporary art world as it is currently structured in the West.
The Tate Modern is at the top of a highly stratified art market and to understand why there are currently no mosaics in the collection we need to understand how that market works. Note that I say “currently” because I believe it is quite possible that one day there may be mosaic in the Tate. In fact, I think that this breakthrough is more possible now than ever before.
The contemporary art market has a structure. It begins with small, independent galleries and moves up through levels of more established galleries – each level attracting a wealthier client base until we reach the likes of Saatchi and Waddington Custot. Each of these layers is supported by, and to a great extent determined by, contemporary art critics and curators.
The primary influence on this system is the market for art – it really is all about what sells. Today, what sells is largely determined by the curators and critics who act as consultants to a clientele of pension funds, corporate collections and newly wealthy speculators. Unlike the clients of the past – individuals who built highly personal collections based on their own tastes and appreciation of art – the majority of today’s clients are looking to make acquisitions that will gain value in time – thus their reliance upon the curators and critics.
The important factor to remember here again is that the Tate Modern is just the tip of this art market “iceberg”; its collection has been honed by the progression of works through the gallery/critic filter.
Art movements in the past have been about media or manifestos or specific ways of interpreting the world. Today, in this curator- determined market, it is all about The Artist. The market sells The Artist and his/her vision, thought, and exploration of concepts. Here we come up against the first barrier to mosaics in the Tate. Those influential curators and critics who drive the art market system will never choose a Medium – they will choose Artists.
When I mentioned earlier that I believe there is a greater opportunity to see a mosaic in the Tate now than ever before, I was referring, in part, to a current “hot trend” in the art market. Many highly collected artists like Tony Cragg, El Anatsui and Chuck Close are creating work by massing or sticking multiple objects to surfaces or creating their own visual tesserae using traditional materials. While one may question whether these works are mosaics or not, mosaic artists should learn from the success of these artists that the concept must take priority over the medium.
If we are to see a mosaic in the Tate, individual mosaic artists must engage with the art market – starting with the galleries at the very bottom of the system – presenting themselves primarily as Artists – and emphasizing their ideas and their exploration of those ideas, not the medium they work in. Mosaic artists should create a good, solid body of work that demonstrates their artistic process – one that might even include work in other media required to explore their ideas and visions. Mosaic artists have a lot to learn from those artists who are already in the Tate and others whose work connects with mosaic in some way who are making their way forward in the gallery system.
So, do not ask me why there are no mosaics in the Tate Modern for the question is the wrong one. There shouldn’t be mosaics in the Tate if the medium alone is the criterion for their presence. Ask me instead why Dugald MacInnes or Cleo Mussi aren’t in the Tate for these are artists who have compelling, interesting things to say and they do so eloquently.
- Paul Bentley’s “Mosaic Matters” website: http://www.mosaicmatters.co.uk
- Gary Drostle’s website: http://www.drostle.com
- British Association for Modern Mosaic: http://www.bamm.org.uk/
- Dugald MacInnes: http://www.dugaldmacinnes.com/
- Elaine M. Goodwin: http://www.elainemgoodwin.co.uk/
- Jane Muir: http://www.janemuir.com/
- Robert Field: http://www.robert-field.co.uk/
- Emma Biggs: http://www.emmabiggsmosaic.net/
- Chuck Close: http://chuckclose.coe.uh.edu/index.html
- Tony Cragg: http://www.tony-cragg.com/
- Cleo Mussi: http://www.mussimosaics.co.uk/