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Tracey Emin. My Bed 1998 (detail) Photograph: Murdo Macleod

The enigmatic ad-man turned art collector Charles Saatchi is to hand to the nation his Chelsea gallery and more than 200 works – including pieces by Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and the Chapman Brothers.

Saatchi, 67, announced today that the 70,000 sq ft gallery would be renamed MOCA London (Museum of Contemporary Art, London) when he retires, and would feature “a strong, rotating permanent collection of major installations”, all of it free to the public.




My Bed 1998, by Tracey Emin, one of the most celebrated and influential artists of her generation. (Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Observer)

Ten years ago researchers in America took two groups of three-year-olds and showed them a blob of paint on a canvas. Children who were told that the marks were the result of an accidental spillage showed little interest. The others, who had been told that the splodge of colour had been carefully created for them, started to refer to it as “a painting”.

Now that experiment – conducted by Paul Bloom, a Yale academic, and psychologist Susan Gelman – has gone on to form part of the foundation of an influential new book that questions the way in which we respond to art.

Bloom’s study, How Pleasure Works, which will be out this week, argues that there is no such thing as a pure aesthetic judgment. In developing his general theory about how humans decide what they like or dislike, he lines up evidence to show that what people believe about a work of art is crucial to the way they feel about it. He goes on to suggest that modern art collectors are partly motivated by the way they wish to be seen by the rest of the world.



Message to Labour? Tracey Emin poses by You forgot to kiss my soul! at her retrospective in Edinburgh last year. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

Rumours abound that Tracey Emin has joined the Conservative party; and frankly it is not a particular surprise.

Certainly, if the people I know, many of whom work in the arts, are anything to go by, there has been all kinds of unprecedented flirtation in recent months with the idea of voting Tory in the wake of war and financial disaster – usually, it has to be said, bitten back after a few moments’ hard concentration on what a government under David Cameron and George Osborne might really be like.

But to take Emin in particular: she may have loathed Thatcher in the 1980s, and may even, for a time, have resisted the idea of Charles Saatchi buying her work because of the part he played in Conservative election campaigns, but her generation of Britartists, with their cunning commercialism and shrewd manipulation of the media are (it is not new to suggest) absolutely Thatcher’s children. They may have loathed Thatcherism, but, in their self-made, brash success they became, in some ways, its embodiments.

In any case, I can just imagine Emin being totally charmed by those suave and assured new Tories.

But there’s a serious point here, too. The Conservative culture team are actually winning some friends in the arts – a notion that would have seemed absurd five years ago.

While it may not be entirely clear what the arts policy of Jeremy Hunt (the shadow culture secretary) and Ed Vaizey (the shadow arts minister) actually consists of, they have repeatedly and convincingly restated their belief in and support of the arts. (It is true that what that would mean now, in financial terms, is becoming less clear – despite their one stated policy of re-routing lottery money back to the arts, any Conservative budget would be fantastically tough on public spending.)

In fact, if you compare Vaizey’s visibility to that of the Labour arts minister, Barbara Follett, Vaizey is much more in evidence. For instance, when the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela came to the Southbank Centre last month, it was Vaizey who came to concerts, spoke at a seminar and showed the young musicians around the House of Commons. Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, and Follett were nowhere to be seen.

And when the Association of British Orchestras had its conference this spring, Hunt gave a pretty convincing and heartfelt speech about the value of music education – without notes – and people were quietly impressed by him.

Each week an email hits my inbox – the weekly email from the Conservative culture team, if you please – which, after months of ignoring, I have recently started reading. It gives a pretty good summary of each week’s arts news, albeit tinged with the prejudices of its authors. But you know what? These Tories are actually concentrating. They are actually working pretty hard.

The Tories are gradually gaining hearts and minds in the traditional Labour heartland of the arts, and Burnham and Follett should think seriously about upping their game.

Charlotte Higgins

Modern art? Not a chance … My Bed, 1998, by Tracey Emin. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

The first time someone accused me of hating modern art, I was confused. I love modern art, I replied. I revere Cézanne. I adore Matisse. It took a few minutes to understand that “modern art” in this conversation meant what I would call contemporary art, the art of today, as opposed to a type of art that evolved in the later 19th century and reached full self-awareness about a century ago, with the incendiary works of Picasso and the rivalrous responses of Matisse.

Modernism, I would have replied at the time, ended in about 1960. Now I’m not so sure. It seemed very naive and historically stupid, a few years ago, for people to be calling the work of, say, Antony Gormley or Tracey Emin “modern art”. It appeared to be an unfortunate educational side effect of the rebranding of the Tate. In calling a new museum with a strongly contemporary flavour “Tate Modern”, the world’s most influential art institution rode roughshod over definitions, categories, accuracy. How many times have I complained, “but it’s really Tate Post-Modern”. And yet, it no longer seems such a dumb or confused choice of words.

We live in modern times – again. Every generation thinks it does, of course. The new is always new. But these times are the most rapidly, unpredictably and promisingly molten since the 1900s when Picasso was creating cubism. At the time when modern art exploded into being, the world was visibly becoming a different place: electric light, the first powered flight, the motor car, the phonograph, radio, cinema … It was a moment of incredible excitement and possibility. Between, say, 1890 and 1914, the world became, in a word, modern.

Today, changes of comparable depth and grandeur are taking place. Modern life is becoming – well, more modern. We’re entering the science fiction age. New technologies are materialising and mutating with a speed that’s utterly exhilarating. I guess this is why I’ve given up hating what that person meant by “modern art”. In a world changing as fast as ours, you can’t really ask artists not to be excited by the endless metamorphoses of everything. We can no longer be cynical about modernity. Look at this blog, for instance. Here’s a new form, a new genre, a totally new understanding of being a critic.

Everything’s changing, and the changes promise … who knows. Perhaps a “post-human” future, a time of cyborgs. Again, that is how it looked to people a century ago, when Brancusi and Duchamp were creating images of the robotic and alien.

Art now is “modern”, perhaps even modernist. It’s certainly not postmodern any more. That definition really belongs to the 1980s, when the decline of socialism and fall of state communism created the illusion of a time after history. Some call these times “altermodern”, but I think the right word is, simply, modern. Artists are trying to respond to the new, the modern, in ways at once liberated and uneasy. It is a courageous moment, and at least, this time around, we have a tradition of the new to help us find our bearings.

So, I love modern art, 1907 – ?

Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones On Art Blog