The Semiotics of Tate’s Hockney Ads (or how Brexit made art expensive)

Political upheaval is already deepening the socio-cultural divides between London boroughs – we can see it in the blockbuster sizing of Tate’s advertising.

(Warning, bit of a rant)


I’ve recently moved from South East London to West London. Previously my nearest cultural centre was Catford High St, with shops where I could buy the right products for my mixed race hair, peculiar little bars like Little Nan’s Deptford with cocktails served by the vase, and charity shops that were actually cheap. Now my nearest cultural centre is Richmond Park with wild deer and cream tea shops and the biggest free-from supermarket aisles I’ve ever seen. I’m aware of the cultural difference and have for the most part accepted the change that has and will make to my life.

However, last night coming home I got off the train at Barnes – and came face to face with a giant billboard, towering above and around me. Rows of five star reviews hemmed one side and the title spanned across the top in giant letters meant to be seen by commuters’ fuzzy sleep-addled eyes. The giant billboard is typically the domain of technology, film or TV promotions no? Elephant and Castle and Wandsworth roundabouts alike boast enormous ads for the latest smartphone, the next Game of Thrones season premiere, Harry Potter franchise, Boxing match.

This was an advert for the Hockney Exhibition at the Tate Britain. An exhibition of paintings in Pimlico that costs £19.50 a pop and is open work hours on weekdays and all day on weekends.

Now, the blockbuster art exhibition is nothing new – retrospectives of artists people have heard of are a big business and galleries do well out of them. The ticket sales support the maintenance of more permanent free collections, and the promotion of British art is refreshing in a world where most other entertainment feels dominated by US-based models – video games, cinema, TV, music. Everything bigger, longer, louder, more epic in every way. The adverts have grown to reflect that.

But the placement and size of them has me riled. Furious, even. I saw one billboard at Barnes station, another at Putney, no doubt they’re all over North and West London. I went looking in South East aaaaaand, nothing. Go beyond the part of SE1 which actually contains the Tate Modern and Hockney billboards are nowhere to be found.

West London is an affluent area, more so than South East. This is a fact. People there are more likely to be able to afford the steep entry charge for the Tate special exhibitions and the expensive muffins that come after. My fury is more at what the size and prominence of the billboard in the area was saying to me.

Semiotics, the study of how signs and symbols communicate meanings within cultural contexts, is often applied to the content of an image – the colours, the people, the compositions, the typography. But here is was not so much the image itself that was saying something new, it was the sheer size.

You must see this it said. This is the cultural event of the Spring. Game of Thrones isn’t in April this year, so this is the event you must attend and talk about. You cannot but notice this. You have been given fair warning. You must book. You will be quizzed on this. There are no free things in the gallery – only this, like one big cinema of art.

A relatively inaccessible and expensive day out has been made into a cultural imperative for members of a relatively moneyed section of society who probably would have gone there anyway, will have membership and have booked the best slots as soon as it opened. West London doesn’t necessarily need huge billboards to tell them about Tate. It feels like another enormous blockbuster that we are made to feel anxious about missing in case we’re behind on our cultural capitol. These are not new customers.

Tate’s mission is to promote ‘public understanding’. Yet marketing money is being spent on promoting anxiety and drawing out more from those who already contribute:

“Everything we do, from the programme we present in our galleries and with partners in Britain and around the world, to the books, products and food we sell in our shops and restaurants, supports our mission: to promote public understanding and enjoyment of British, modern and contemporary art.”

In their 2016 plan, however, they outline that:

“Tate will deliver an ambitious programme of activities in its galleries, online and through national and international partnerships and implement changes that will establish a sustainable operating model, less dependent on Grant in Aid and less vulnerable to changes in the public finances.”

Less vulnerable to changes in the public finances – independent, private. Call it what it is. As political instability messes with our cultural funding models, institutions are having to look to other ways to future-proof themselves – by being bigger, more blockbuster, more middle of the road crowdpleasing, and by charging more money. And in the process, altruism, widening access, democratization of art is likely to fall by the wayside, it’s already starting to.

I don’t blame Tate for going for the money, they have to. I don’t blame West Londoners for spending their money on art so consistently that they’re seen as the primary target. People like what they like. But I resent the huge billboards, the huge rift being made between the kind of cultural pursuit you MUST take part in – art for West London, TV and tech for the South East London. I resent the amount of money we have to increasingly spend to see good art in a city that previously gave us these things for free, that felt open, democratic. I worry that the silos of opinion are starting to encompass our cultural pursuits so much more than ever before. I worry that Londoners, those beautiful, open people, those freaks and geeks from everywhere and love everything, will be even more divided by the effects of Brexit. That institutions will stop reaching out and start digging in and culture will come to a standstill.

At a time of such upheaval, institutions are at a moment where they have to pick a path, take a stance, decide their allegiances. Billboards of Hockney in Barnes are communicating something, and it isn’t the promotion of ‘public understanding’, at least, not for the whole public. And with further societal rifts and political upheaval around the corner, as arts institutions seek to rely less on public finances, the worry is that public understanding is going to become less and less of an imperative. Free art is a cultural highlight of London, but who knows how long it’ll stay free?




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