The title of an exhibition is usually the last thing I think of, often only after the gallery curator has nagged me to come up with something. This time I thought of the title (The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!) before I had made most of the artworks. It made me laugh, and slightly nervous laughter is the reaction most art world people have to it. Why is that? What is unsettling about an exhibition boasting about being popular?
In 1937 the Nazis organised an exhibition called Entartete Kunst, (“Degenerate Art”). The idea was to show that modernism was a conspiracy by people who hated German decency. Visitors were encouraged to see modernist artists as Hitler saw them: as “incompetents, cheats and madmen”. The exhibition included some of the greatest German artists of the 20th century: George Grosz, Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. More than two million people visited the show, 20,000 a day. It was one of the most popular exhibitions of all time. I’m not sure what proportion of those visitors went to the exhibition to mock the art and how many went to enjoy what today would be a coach-party blockbuster, but Entartete Kunst surely did nothing to soften the art world’s suspicion of popularity.
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! is published by Penguin. The exhibition is at the Serpentine Galleries from 8 June to 10 September. Grayson Perry: Divided Britain is on 30 May at 9pm on Channel 4.
Image: Grayson Perry, Puff Piece,2016