On 23 May 2023, Tate Britain revealed a major reorganisation of the way its collection is displayed. The new galleries, says Tate, ‘explore art in its social context, revealing how artists responded to the cultural, political, economic and technological changes they lived through’. Here, Hana Abdulati and Rudra Simitri, two sixth-form students interested in art, reflect on what the new arrangements mean.
Curators claim that Tate Britain’s rehang offers a captivating and thought-provoking experience for visitors. It’s supposedly a reimagining of the presentation of British art that breaks away from the traditional thematic arrangements to a more organised chronological order, perhaps intending to spread a larger political message.
No matter your opinion, the controversy surrounding the rehang raises the question of the actual purpose of art itself. Is it the responsibility of art to consistently disseminate a political message? Is it art that we should turn towards in matters of moral quandary? Or in a world where ‘cancel culture’ runs rampant, do we owe it to ourselves to simply allow art to be art?
One of the notable strengths of the rehang is its ability to guide visitors through the historical development of British art. They are offered a unique opportunity to trace the evolution of artistic movements and styles over time. While this is undoubtedly informative, perhaps it bars the path towards individual thematic exploration or unexpected connections between artworks. The joy of art, of viewing art, comes from the individual relationship the viewer can make with the painting. One could argue that the revised chronological arrangement prioritises history over art, unconsciously conflating what should be a pleasurable encounter with political agendas and mere tokenism.
Traditional artworks are gradually becoming the subject of the rapidly shifting social and political preoccupations of a new cohort of curators and museum directors. This recent rehang serves as evidence that Tate Britain has adopted a thought process that interprets British history through the optics of specific social matters: post-colonialism, slavery and race; on the place of women; on the presence of queer and LGBTQ subjects; and migrants and migration.
One of art’s original purposes was to serve as a means of documenting historical events and narratives. This interconnectedness makes it difficult to disentangle art from its historical context. Moreover, it raises questions about the motivations behind museum visits. As an art student, the primary focus might be on observing and studying the technical prowess displayed by the artists. However, the concept of ‘separating art from the artist’ emerges as a crucial consideration. Should the moral character of the artist or the presence of problematic themes within the artwork diminish its artistic merit?
This dilemma extends beyond individual artists or specific works and invites broader inquiry into whether this principle can be applied uniformly across all forms of art. Exploring the complexities of these issues prompts us to critically examine the relationship between art, history, ethics and the inherent subjectivity involved in interpreting and evaluating artistic creations. This could be the basis of productive conversations where fresh insights could expand or enrich the selection and curation of art – as long as art itself, and tested standards of judgement in art, is not forgotten.
Photo of Tate Britain: Tony Hisgett