The success of Tate Modern in attracting visitors has been phenomenal. It is a place where believers in modern art, unbelievers, the informed and the merely curious mingle. There is no art-gallery equivalent of the church notice ‘service in progress’ to separate them, but the worship of art is on the whole a private matter and chattering crocodiles of schoolchildren need not be a serious barrier to contemplation. In fact, much is gained from the fairground tilt the mix of the committed and the casual gives the atmosphere of the place. It has, in particular, contributed to the great success of installations in the Turbine Hall, which have been among the gallery’s best projects. Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas and Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project were artworks, but also public events. Like fireworks displays in their universal appeal, they were best enjoyed as part of a crowd.

The fairground aspect of things is also, strangely enough, kind to what might be thought the most odd, hermetic, esoteric and in-your-face new work. Some visitors may reckon they are visiting a freak show, a playroom or a chamber of horrors, but their refusal to accept that they are in the presence of art minimises the debilitating self-importance a gallery exhibition tends to force on even the most subversive work. The new Tate Modern display does well, for example, by videos. In one, made by Gary Hill in 1994, you see his young daughter Anastasia reading from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. She is pretty and reads very nicely, stumbling only on the odd long word, but not, one assumes, understanding any part of it. Another, Anri Sala’s Dammi i Colori (2002-03), is about the effect of buildings painted in bright colours on the inhabitants of post-Communist Tirana. The camera pans along dismal streets and runs its eye over harlequin façades while the voice-over gives an account of what colour came to mean to people. These pieces, because they are inconsequential and lack technical sophistication, are free of the conventions which make even news broadcasts formulaic. Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet of 2002, in which hundreds of film clips are edited together and shown as a frieze of multiple images, cannot make the journey below the surface of cinematic convention: the technical gloss of the cinema classics his excerpts are taken from is dominant. It is easier and jollier to watch and listen to than the others, but it offers little for you to go on thinking about.

Which doesn’t mean that you want to be told what to think. Nothing makes clearer Tate Modern’s particular problems and failures in relation to the new displays than a sentence to be found on the map of the collection you pick up from the information desk. It reads: ‘The gallery’s displays have recently been changed, which means you can view works from the Tate collection in exciting new ways.’ New ways? Blue spectacles? Upside down? The notion that curatorial skill in rearranging the stamp album will alter your view of the Cubist painting you have always known and want to see again, that it will take on a new life because it has been allocated new neighbours, implies that it has somehow become stale through too-long exposure. Once you start believing it is the curator’s job to liven up what they curate, explanations follow. No joke survives an explanation and no work of art can be vivified by one. There are things you may want to know, but that desire follows on a response, a reaction of some kind generated by the work itself. This applies particularly to what is ‘difficult’. (The word itself is a confusion.) Carl Andre’s bricks weren’t an equation or a sentence in a foreign language. They belonged to that large class of 20th-century works which start with a negative – the acknowledgment that a genre has been exhausted – and go on, as though rebuilding art from axioms as geometers build proofs of theorems. That is my gloss, but I don’t pretend it will help anyone who has not in one way or another become aware, through other works of art, of modern art’s voracious appetite for novelty, and somehow been pleased by Andre’s extreme frugality of means and materials. A gallery best offers that awareness through displays which are coherent without being coercive.

When you traverse Tate Modern’s three levels of exhibition galleries (the middle one given over to special exhibitions is closed at the moment while Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction 1908-22 and Pierre Huyghe: Celebration Park are being installed) you get good views down into the Turbine Hall and out to St Paul’s Cathedral and the City. The success of Tate Modern as a viewing platform, like that of the Pompidou Centre, has never been questioned. But in both cases complaints have been made about the way the buildings function as museums of modern art. At the Tate there were problems with lighting which have in part been dealt with – it is now less flatly industrial than it was – and there was little enthusiasm for the way the permanent collection was shown. Displays which ignored the traditional art-historical ordering by time and geography were abandoned in favour of themes which seemed to invite one to compare and contrast. The intention was didactic, the result an essay in invidious comparisons.

The places pictures are seen in can protect them with strength-giving associations. Murals and altarpieces take on something from the churches they were painted for; David Smith’s, Rodin’s and Brancusi’s sculpture looked best in their studios. Donald Judd has gone so far as to develop the Chinati Foundation in Texas just to show his work; you can see why the pieces by him in one of the most successful rooms in the new display all seem to want the space to themselves. So to know why older works in traditional forms come off worst in the new displays, it is worth asking where they might look better. Usually it is in places where they seem to have come to rest, to have found permanency. Public galleries based on private collections sometimes suit paintings like these: in the Phillips Collection in Washington, works by Bonnard, Rouault and Rothko all seem to gain confidence from each other and the spaces they hang in. The Rothko room in Tate Modern is an exception which proves the rule, for here one has a dim space, constructed and lit just for these paintings. It is perfect and does all a space can for them.

The solution arrived at for the Pompidou Centre was to have a new gallery, built within the frame of the old, which took no cues from the supporting structure. A more interesting solution for Tate Modern might be to abandon old art to other places (Matisse’s Snail would look wonderful in the National Gallery), to abandon the word ‘art’ altogether, and give the space over to those works which, in one way or another, advance the proposition that nothing the label can easily be attached to is an adequate response to the place of the aesthetic in modern life. Tate Britain would go on being a happy home for the Freuds, Auerbachs and Hodgkins. The ludic quality arising from Tate Modern’s success as a station on a tourist trail could then come into its own. It would be a place where the question ‘is it art?’ would be irrelevant and the ideas of permanence, greatness, genius and beauty which go with it could be given a well-earned rest.

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