We need religious art more than ever, says Waldemar Januszczak — but his spirit wasn’t revived by Tate Liverpool’s Seeing Is Believing
As you must know, last year, Liverpool won the fierce battle to be nominated as Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2008. It’s an opportunity to achieve some genuine cultural good. The people of Glasgow will tell you that being the European City of Culture in 1990 turned their city around. Much was built. Much was opened. Much was discussed. Glasgow emerged from the brouhaha in better cultural shape, and so, therefore, did Britain. Judging by what Liverpool’s been up to so far, the opposite will happen there.
The branding now going on in Liverpool’s city centre is grotesque. Horrid logos in horrid sizes make Liverpool look like a supermarket flogging pizzas at special prices. Somebody pushed a leaflet into my hand, presumptuously entitled Christmas in the Capital, in which the opening paragraph blared out: “Feast your eyes on the choice of cultural crackers on offer in Liverpool this winter and you’ll see why the European Capital of Culture for 2008 is a hotbed of fun.” The main cultural cracker being promised was a world-record attempt to field the most Santas in a road race.
Basically, there’s been a complete aesthetic collapse. Earlier in the year, the city made the unforgivable decision to drop the brilliant scheme for Will Alsop’s Fourth Grace, a truly spectacular modern building to accompany those famous old ones on the banks of the Mersey, which I took to be a central plank of the original Capital of Culture bid. As soon as the nomination was in the bag, Alsop’s architecture was booted out. A couple of months ago, the art of Yoko Ono was manhandled and censored when it appeared on the streets as part of the Liverpool Biennale. Ono had sited a sweet and spiritual image of a naked woman’s breast on the front of a disused church. It was so obviously and so roundly a well-meaning image of nourishment and succour. Five hundred years ago, Michelangelo painted naked men and women on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, the holiest spot in Christendom. In 2004, Liverpool managed to take offence at Yoko’s gentle breast and had it removed. Pathetic.
I strode into Tate Liverpool, where a new show sought to examine the treatment of faith by modern artists in the Tate collection, hoping for a display of aesthetic courage and mettle. The philistines may have triumphed on the streets of the 2008 Capital of Culture, but surely the galleries were unconquered? Alas, my optimism was misplaced. In the city where, according to its presumptuous Christmas brochure, “culture comes alive”, the exact opposite is happening. A cancer of blandness, exactly like the one that destroyed the Millennium Dome in 2000, is attacking the cultural potency of Liverpool. Say nothing, prompts the deadly virus, and you’ll offend nobody.
The Tate show was selected by a jury drawn from all manner of local faith groups — Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics. At one stage, Buddhists were involved, but they dropped out. Smart move. The remainder got together at regular intervals and trawled through the Tate’s collection of modern art, looking for inspirational examples of faith-driven work. I don’t know at what stage of the selection process the deadly PC virus made its move. I suspect it was there from the start.
The first sculpture you see is an Anish Kapoor. Of course. It’s one of his early works, in which generous piles of pure pigment, a blood red and a marigold yellow, have been tipped into vague heaps of organic geometry, as if from a Jungian’s cake mould. It’s an attention-grabbing, full-colour effect “borrowed” from every market stall to be found outside every temple in India. Kapoor has made a fortune from this common Indian sight. The Indian stallholders who invented it should have charged him copyright fees.
The second work you see is a pair of paintings by the doomy abstract expressionist Barnett Newman, his rightly celebrated Adam and Eve, from 1950-52. They are, I grant you, beyond criticism: two hugely atmospheric slabs of red and brown, in which the grand and sombre colouration blots out everything else and creates a fantastically portentous microclimate that envelopes you for the duration of the picture. My great predecessor among Britain’s art critics, the much missed Peter Fuller, who underwent decades of psychotherapy as he searched grittily for the underlying impulses of art, came to the conclusion that all abstract painting of this sort can trace its origins back to the baby’s relationship with its mother’s breast. The breast blots out everything else. Its pinkness is the baby’s best reality. It alone brings pleasure and succour. It’s a reading I only believe now and then, but standing in front of Newman’s grand and breasty Eve, I always tend to concur.
Newman’s marvels are easily the best things on display. Yet even these mighty masterpieces are dragged to the edge of the blandness by the lack of passion and conviction and fierceness that characterises the rest of the gathering. Religion? Give me a break. Religion causes nations to go to war. It is the single most potent force currently shaping global history. I know that Anglican vicars prefer to deal with these issues in a happy-clappy manner, but to see Islam, Judaism and the Catholics favouring it as well is entirely baffling. Religion today is frighteningly relevant and absolutely current. Yet here we have a show that sails around its topic as jauntily as a toy boat in a bubble bath.
Louise Bourgeois shows a swirl of spirals and spider lines entitled Untitled. What’s religious about it? A beautiful Victor Pasmore of a vaguely earth-like horizon with a vaguely sun-shaped circle at the centre is — if you really cross your fingers hard and hope — mildly cosmic. Thomas Struth’s fine photograph of a crowd in the National Gallery milling before a Venetian altarpiece does have a Christ in it, but as it is part of a series that includes every other type of picture you get in galleries, it is most certainly not about faith. If the intended point is that art is itself a new religion, then sorry, but that is as blurred an observation as the tottering pile of white plaster that Didier Vermeiren decided to call Adam in 1995.
There are a couple of Crucifixions in here, both from British art’s most throbbingly religious era, the post-war years, one by Graham Sutherland, the other by Elisabeth Frink, both ghastly. But at least they have some spiky religious intent to them, unlike all the abstract fluff that surrounds them, which could be about anything. An interestingly silly video by Christian Jankowski shows the artist gate-crashing an evangelical meeting in America and persuading the preacher to compare God ’s output with his own. It has some merit as a display of chutzpah, but that is it. And Damien Hirst is represented by that fine set of prints in which he pretends that the favourite food of the working classes — chips, sausages, steak and kidney pie — is now available in pill form. With his tongue rammed firmly into his cheek, Hirst called his pharmaceutical set of prints The Last Supper.
Apparently, “faith” has been the cultural theme of the year in Europe. First I’ve heard of it. A smarmy explanation in the show’s literature points out that this ridiculously polite display, sneaking in a few days before the annual deadline, is part of Liverpool’s continuing effort to share Europe’s cultural largesse with itself. “This project is supported by European Regional Development Funds and Liverpool City Council through the Capital of Culture ‘Faith in One City’ grants programme,” I read. In those 24 blandly terrifying words, everything about this feeble effort is made crystal clear, from its motivation to its tenor, its timing to its positioning. Beware of Liverpool 2008. The devil is in the driving seat.