Wherever tradition and pomposity clashes with the public interest, there lies the satirist’s pen. Little wonder then that British cartoonists have periodically turned to our national art institutions for inspiration.
In the early 20th century, new-fangled cinemas threatened museum visitor numbers. Joseph Lee responded with a cartoon in the Evening News (5 Dec 1934) depicting a bemused gallery attendant confronted by an overwrought nanny and her mass of excitable children. She inquires, ‘Is there a “U” programme on today?’
Typically visitors, rather than institutions, face the sharpest end of the artist’s nib. Another Lee cartoon (6 Dec 1935) bemoans the public’s general ignorance. Admiring masterpieces from the ‘Dutch School’, one hapless visitor exclaims to her friend that ‘The boys at this school seem to have done remarkably well…for beginners’. The message is clear – culture is wasted on the public.
Museums do not get off scot-free however, and whilst the British Museum and National Gallery are often depicted as benign but old fashioned, the likes of the Tate and Royal Academy of Arts have proved far more controversial.
The annual Summer Exhibition was, and perhaps still is, perceived as an official sanction of acceptable art. Inevitable arguments over the selection process clearly interested David Low, whose regular satirical roundup in the Evening Standard, ‘Low’s Topical Budget’, habitually sought to puncture pomposity at the RA. His cartoon, ‘Outrage at Royal Academy’ (30 April 1938), depicts contemporary artists Stanley Spencer, Augustus John and Walter Sickert violently restraining Sir Edwin Lutyens, then President of the RA, while Wyndham Lewis forcibly paints his portrait. The caption states that ‘steps are being taken to keep artists out in future’.
By contrast, the Tate is the de facto setting for debates over the value of modern art. Ronald Carl under the pseudonym Giles produced a cartoon for the Daily Express (19 Feb 1976) of a workman waxing lyrical about the aesthetic qualities of a brick, lampooning the Tate’s infamous debut of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) in 1976.
Indeed, you can set your watch by the annual controversy surrounding the Turner Prize. Tom Johnston commented on this perennial storm in a teacup in a cartoon for the Daily Mirror (12 Dec 2001), showing a witless Turner Prize judge confronted by visitors angered by Martin Creed’s winning installation. The caption reads, ‘The light is on but there’s nobody at home’.
Commentary usually sticks to well-worn clichés, but occasionally specific events have proved newsworthy enough to provoke pen to paper. WK Haselden’s cartoon for the Daily Mirror (13 March 1914) shows a young woman being searched, handcuffed and paraded before paintings, concealed behind protective cages. The strip parodies the new security measures enacted after the suffragette, Mary Richardson, attacked Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver.
Cartoonists typically restrict themselves to issues directly affecting the public. A curious exception to this is David Low’s ‘Grave Art Situation’ from the Evening Standard (2 Jan 1937). Here he touches on a relatively obscure art world controversy: the National Gallery’s perceived over-cleaning of Velázquez’s portrait of Philip IV of Spain. Low raises this rather technical issue, whilst also satirising its significance, the caption states: ‘Fears are expressed that if the new Cleanliness Movement is not nipped in the bud it may extend to artists’.
This aside, as a form of institutional critique, cartoons are necessarily light. Society as a whole is examined through the prism of yawning security guards, rowdy children and ignorant visitors. However, as politicians would do well to remember, satirists rarely tackle subjects that are of little interest to their readers. Despite the criticisms, it is perhaps when the cartoons stop that museums, and politicians, should begin to worry.