The Tate: pompous, arrogant and past it?

    The fourth Triennial shows British modern art is clapped out and far from the creativity of Brit Art and the Lisson Gallery

    I’m an optimist. And I love modern art. It’s been my life, my career, my sustenance. My wife is a modern artist: it’s one of the reasons I love her. My children have been fed a diet of modern art ever since they opened their eyes. When my youngest daughter was three, I happily took her into the Chapman brothers’ room at the Sensation exhibition: and you know what was in there. So I’m experienced at modern art; I’m supportive of it; I embrace it. If, therefore, I suggest that it appears to have reached the end of its journey and has begun annoying the bejesus out of me, you can be confident it’s serious.

    I should quickly add that I’m thinking here of British modern art: the rest of the world still has things to be hopeful about. We don’t. Towards the end of last year, in the months after Damien Hirst pulled off his Houdini escape from auction disaster at Sotheby’s, I had reason to visit Tate Britain on various occasions while Martin Creed, a particularly pampered Tate favourite who has undeservedly won the Turner prize, was showing a conceptual piece called Work No 850. It’s a stupid name, and the piece it described was appropriately meaningless. For five months, Creed had people running through Tate Britain at full pelt in a seemingly endless gallery relay. They’d start at one end of the posh Duveen Galleries and rush to the other. And that was it.

    The first time I encountered Work No 850, the runners came from an amateur athletics club, so they achieved some speed; there was, indeed, a touch of excitement to the proceedings. On the next few occasions, it was performed by polite volunteers who could not run quickly or determinedly. Up and down the gallery they ambled, in a thoroughly pointless display of indoor jogging. Shafts of scorn poked up in me at the sight of them. The piece itself was not the problem: it was daft, but daftness is what you get with Creed. What was extra-annoying about Work No 850 was the grotesque waste of effort involved in mounting it. For five months, it continued. From July 1 to November 16. Heaven knows how many volunteers were eventually involved. Or how many useless miles were run. It was a colossal waste of time and resources for the tiniest of conceptual rewards. And it brought into focus how flaccid and indulgent and spoilt and grandiloquent and aimless and bloated and, yes, degenerate British art has become.

    What we have here today is a situation that parallels events in France in the 1860s, when the Paris salon became too powerful and the impressionist revolt needed to happen to revive art. The Tate is the salon of today: pompous, arrogant, all-powerful and utterly convinced of its superiority. What began as a force for progress and coherence has turned into a cultural despot that has the government’s ear. If you’re in with the Tatists, like Creed, then the carte is blanche and five months of running up and down the Duveen Gallery will be organised for you. If you’re not in with them, forget it.

    Just as the Paris salon favoured the conceptual over the actual — pretentious history painting over vivid snapshots of everyday life — so the Tate supports art that imagines it is on a higher plane than the everyday. Reading the catalogue for the current Tate Triennial is a ball-crushingly dispiriting experience: “Forms of Transformation: Modernity as Meta-Language . . . The Altermodern and Habitations of Contemporary Art . . . Supermodernity, Andromodernity, Speciousmodernity . . .” A practised satirist could not have dreamt up a more clunky example of phoney intellectualism elbowing out actual intelligence.

    In my time as an art critic, I have seen two truly significant modern movements emerge in Britain. Neither had anything to do with the Tate. Indeed, both of them can be seen as alternatives to the Tate. The first was the brilliant group of sculptors centred on the Lisson Gallery — Cragg, Deacon, Kapoor, Woodrow — who arrived in the early 1980s. God, they were exciting. The first time I saw one of Kapoor’s unmixed pigment pieces at the ICA, I could have melted to the floor with colouristic joy. And for sheer sculptural wit, there is little in British art to rival Bill Woodrow’s washing machines turned into beavers. All these artists knew each other, worked together, showed together and achieved together.

    A decade or so later, Brit Art arrived, and once again it was produced by a bunch of artists who hung out together, studied together, partied together and gave each other succour: because the Tate wasn’t giving it to them. Just as the impressionists had to go it alone to rescue French art from the salon, so the Brit Artists had to go it alone to rescue British art from the Tate.

    For a vivid impression of the dreary preferences of current British aesthetics, get yourself over to the Tate Triennial. Every three years, Tate Britain mounts a show whose ambition is to sum up the condition of British modern art: the topics that concern it; the styles it favours; the artists who matter. It’s an excellent ambition. And, if this show ever came remotely close to achieving it, it would be a valuable one.

    But it never does. As I trudged round on the snowiest day of last week, with the exhibits pretty much to myself, two unfortunate questions kept shovelling themselves into my thoughts. The first was: what time is it?

    It wasn’t boredom that had me examining my watch. Having been to all the Tate Triennials so far — this is the fourth — I was used to longueurs. The problem here was the length of real time needed to view the exhibits. The Black Audio Film Collective’s offering, Handsworth Songs, lasts 61 minutes. Shezad Dawood’s Feature 2008 is a 55-minute DVD. Marcus Coates’s absurd display of television shamanism, in which he dresses up as a badger and talks to two Israelis about the animal kingdom, takes 22 minutes. Joachim Koester’s Hashish Club goes on and on, as does Nathaniel Mellors’s seemingly interminable Giantbum, in which a pair of actors keep agreeing to disagree. After half an hour of Mike Nelson’s admittedly fascinating rant by a deranged American conspiracy theorist, I simply had to move on. Or I would have missed most of the show.

    To see everything in the Triennial would take 24 hours or more. Which is nuts. No worthwhile dramatist expects you to sit through 10 plays one after another. Yet the visitor to the typical modern art exhibition of today is expected to sit through film after film, video after video, and to take equal meanings from all of them. Of course you can’t. What you actually do is watch for a bit, see if it grabs you, then decide to stay or not. Made by slackers for slackers, and following a generous slacker’s timescale, this is art that makes its own completion impossible.

    The second question that kept bundling itself into my mind was: what’s the best way to murder a curator? Curators are the art world’s biggest contemporary pests. The Tate is overrun with them. Twenty years ago, they barely existed. Now every ambitious display of modern art is a curator’s personal handiwork. The Tate Triennial is the achievement of a curatorial dunce called Nicolas Bourriaud, who is, I read, the Gulbenkian Curator of Contemporary Art. He it was who came up with the cumbersome title with which this event has been lumbered: Altermodern.

    This meaningless adjective, created out of the elision of alternative and modern, is supposed to sum up the current location of British art. What is Altermodern? The state after postmodern, stupid, “an in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalisation, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and mediums”. So, Altermodern can be anything. All of which would merely be laughable if British art actually were in a healthy state. But it isn’t. The salon art of today is torturous, dull, inert and, above all, tired-looking. And the fourth Tate Triennial makes an unanswerable case for the proposition that British modern art is clapped out.

    One thing Bourriaud is right about is the shift to globalism. Britain as a whole has had its say, so the important art of the future will be made elsewhere. On the surprising evidence of the new Saatchi show of Middle Eastern contemporary art, where Tala Madani’s paintings display such astonishing courage and punchiness, the Middle East could be a significant location. There is certainly plenty of proper subject matter at hand. My other tip is Russia. I am only lightly familiar with the art coming out of Moscow, but what I have seen has energy, wit, fire and a sense of purpose. Modern Artski is the coming thing.