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Three Cheers For Nicholas Penny

In an interview given to The Art Newspaper for one of its Frieze editions last week, Nicholas Penny, director of London’s National Gallery, gave his view of a theme I’ve mentioned here once or twice — and went a step further. The topic? The similarity of contemporary art collections in U.S. museums.

Penny, lamenting the influence of the Museum of Modern Art, said:

… it has been hugely influential, so that almost all of the other museums in America have a modern wing attached to them. And 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.

I agree, and have said so many times. He also took up another lament of mine — the lack of sharp criticism in the art world, saying:

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


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.

So naturally, I want to highlight this interview — more of which will be published in the November Art Newspaper — as reinforcement.

Meantime, a hat tip to Charlotte Higgins, writing in the Guardian on Monday, for pointing me to the Penny interview. She focused more on what she called Penny’s “writing off” of performance, video and conceptual art — which is true. For example, he said:

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.

Agree or not, it’s the debate that’s important — it may well sharpen everyone’s perceptions.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the National Gallery


  1. It’s very hard not to agree with Penny, and good for him for speaking up. There’s always the grand AND intimate feeling of necessity in both great and, if not that, true art: Van Gogh and Grandma Moses… The element of boredom (most video) is never there.

  2. Donald Knaub says:

    I absolutely agree with his evaluation of contemporary and his feelings about contemporary art wings. I’m a retired art museum director and always hope that criticism will happen but it doesn’t. It seems related to the American phenom of children achieving too early for too little.

  3. Michael MThomas says:

    Three cheers to Penny for saying this and to Judy for circulating it! The bastardization of MOMA, to which I started going regularly in around 1954, is one of the tragedies of my lifetime, equivalent to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

  4. Patrick Frank says:

    I would hope that Dr. Penny would curate a show of contemp. art sometime so that we can see what he actually favors. Cursing the changing world is rather easy, but putting forward an alternative is harder and I would respect someone more, esp. in his high position, if they showed us something.

  5. Amen and amen – especially the part about the videos (yawn).

  6. Norman Sasowsky says:

    All the usual suspects, the homogenizing of art and the destroying of art and the artists at the same time. We need a way around this. This is not the case in the other arts, literature, drama, etc. We have surrendered and become another product. collectibles and, in the process, cheapened our own lives. N. Sasowsky

    • Yes, there might be a way around it – but no short cut…

      Well, familiarity sells.

      Contemporary art, not having the perspective of history, indeed brings the question: who gets to call it art?

      Penny is right when he said: “And intelligent criticism does depend on your having criteria and models and so on, and so the more that what is made today is seen in relation to what was produced in the past, the better.”

      Critical discourse is important – but I think there may now be a tempting new tool in the horizon – the biological perspective, our eyes and our body-mind. I believe it would help us look at art or even find out what it might be from another angle. After all, our body and consciousness have been around for at least 200,000 years and the original model from which all art began. And we may just know enough now to start that process.

      For example, we now know that the first 200 milliseconds of our seeing a picture are unconscious. We also know there are receptor cells in the retina of our eyes that send impulses directly to effect an action, often without ever reaching consciousness.

      This sounds like a rather intimidating venture – but we do have a reliable guide – Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and the Brain (2012). It’s a dictionary of a book – but it has all in one place these topics addressed by a Nobel laureate whose life’s work is memory storage on the cellular and molecular levels, and himself an art lover. *

      More importantly, I believe what artists, curators, critics, and art historians know could suggest directions for scientific research into these areas. This in turn could help illuminate, for example, Nicholas Penny’s (and many others’) doubt about conceptual art, performance, video, and other art forms in general.

      * Do pick and choose from the comprehensive index – don’t attempt to read it from beginning to end. Kandel, also a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, quotes Freud aplenty – so it’s far from just dry science.

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