October 26: a safe place to tuck away your radicalism

In Tate Britain this morning I was interested to read the explanations that accompany the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings with now multiple referencing to the slave trader and colonialist backgrounds of the sitters for the portraits. The Tate is of course constructed on the basis of the sugar industry and its connections with slavery, so it needs to broach the issues openly. One approves, of course, but at the same time at the back of ones mind one feels that what art should really be doing is posting up a set of portraits of the modern aristocracy, the celebrities and multi-millionaires accompanied by some deconstructive surgery on their exploitations of others, their cosying up to big business and big money, their hypocrisies on the environment, their embodiment of contemporary western hegemonies. This can’t be done, I suppose, because of their lawyers. The analysis of 18th and 19th Century colonialism in British portraiture is a safe place to tuck away your radicalism. The real debate isn’t happening that much.



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