What art curators can learn from Shakespeare

Theatres bring Shakespeare searingly alive time and again, so why are art galleries content to leave the old masters in their graves?

Former Dr Who stars David Tennant and Catherine Tate are setting the West End alight in Much Ado About Nothing. Meanwhile, so many Shakespeare productions and projects, including a BBC season, are planned for the 2012 cultural Olympiad that fans of other writers are said to be a bit miffed. But this poet and dramatist who died in 1616 is endlessly revived, reinterpreted: Shakespeare lives for ever because every generation makes him its contemporary. This raises a big question: why can't the custodians of great art make Rembrandt, Raphael and Rubens as immediate as actors and directors make Shakespeare?

These three artists, and more, belong with Shakespeare in the canon. But while theatre, film and television make Shakespeare urgent, art galleries sometimes seem to go out of their way to make the old masters look ... well, old.

I am not calling for some glib rebranding of Renaissance and baroque art – no one needs that. Nor do I think it is a solution to bring contemporary art into collections of oil paintings, which usually just dramatises the gulf between old and new and reinforces the idea that historical art is removed from us in feeling.

Because that is the failure, here – the inability to convey the universal humanity of great art. The reason Shakespeare blazes on is not because famous names appear in his plays. It is because actors and audiences look straight to the human heart of his poetry, recognising that in late Renaissance England he saw into dilemmas, delights and despairs that are still ours.

This is just as true of 16th- and 17th-century artists as it is of Shakespeare. In fact, it is more true, because his language was that of a Renaissance man, while modes of seeing have not changed since Velázquez painted Las Meninas or Bernini sculpted The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

Here is my modest proposal: art museums should devise exhibitions that express the passion and visceral power of great art. These might be thematic exhibitions on universal subjects, such as "The Horrors of War", "The Nude", "Death and Art" or "Myths in Art". They should be accessible and encyclopedic but acute in the quality of works selected, the histories told, the information given.

Alternatively, these new, accessible, universal exhibitions might be much tighter in scope, dedicated to one or two artists, but in this case the aim should be to get across the heart and soul of Vermeer, or to tell the story of Caravaggio in all its drama.

Plays are not put on for academics. Nor should exhibitions of the old masters be for an educated elite. It is time for art museums to speak like Shakespeare.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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