It’s popular so it must be art! That miserable logic helped fuel the redneck outrage over the alleged snub by most of Australia’s art museums in not collecting the schlocky outback landscapes by the recently departed populist, Pro Hart.

Now the same simplistic thinking is driving a campaign to force one of Britain’s most prestigious art institutions, the Tate, to collect the work of the ageing painter Beryl Cook, who’s won the hearts of clueless hordes with her pot-boiler pictures of fat ladies.

Cook’s supporters say if the Tate can spend $56,000 on a can of human excrement (as it did six years ago when it purchased a work by Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni) it should have at least one of Beryl’s paintings in its collection.

The prices for Cook’s corpulent cuties start at around £20,000 ($50,000). Her ability to command such high prices is, according to her supporters, proof of her standing as an artist, which is exactly the same argument put forward by Pro Hart fans when they were attacking public galleries here for not buying his work.

While this kind of pressure is odious, it could be argued that museum curators are partly to blame for unleashing this populist tide. Contemporary art — a thing largely defined and shaped by the curatorial gatekeepers — has become obsessed with celebrity and has raised popular culture to the status of a fetish object. Under those circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that there is growing pressure for museums to consider popularity as a measure of artistic merit.

Peter Fray

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