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The National Gallery director Nicholas Penny. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

A byway in Frieze week, a small tributary running into the main stream, has been the simultaneous publication of two interviews, by Frieze Masters magazine and the Art Newspaper, with the director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny.

Some of what he says is a shot to the arm: yes, to keeping biography separate from criticism. Yes, to question the absolute authority of museum exhibition as a guide to quality, and to note that the connection between museum exhibition/acquisition and the market is, well, a little queasy-making (we all know museums that have a lot of questionable works that must have seemed a great idea to have collected at the time). On his rather startling write-off of video art, conceptual art and performance art one can’t help feeling that this this a rather de haut-en-bas attitude, and to write off entire categories of artistic practice is, while bracing, also a little foolish, especially as Penny does not give the impression of having spent large tracts of time studying such work. (Though he’s of course right about some video art.)

Highlights from the interviews:

On art forms he does not relate to: “The art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art. I’m uneasy with some aspects of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.

On “modern” wings in American art museums: “frankly these wings impress me as deadly: the same white walls with the same loud, large, obvious, instantly recognisable products lined up on them. Nothing in the so-called academic institutions of the 19th century approach them in orthodoxy and predictability.”

On criticism: “There is a lamentable lack of critical debate about contemporary art. If you think about the way Modern and contemporary art was received in the 19th century, there was always a tremendous amount of critical defence and attack, far more than is the case today.”

On museums and the market: “Exhibition in a museum – and, even more so, acquisition – is an endorsement which has become a substitute for critical appraisal. There seems to be a belief that the reputations of artists in museums will never be challenged. This is a valuable myth for the market. It may be that once a certain amount of public money has been invested in art it will be valued forever. But I doubt it.”

On looking at contemporary art: “I try not to think of contemporary art as a separate category. I object to being asked whether I ‘like contemporary art’. The question betrays the assumption that one will look at the art of today without a critical eye.”

On meeting artists: “I think it is a mistake to suppose that meeting an artist would help to understand their art. The intelligence and imagination of many artists really exists only in what they painted or carved or modelled.”

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Charlotte Higgins
Guardian

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