A cultural void at the heart of government

One thing that was confirmed for me yesterday is that being a government minister responsible for “Culture, Communications and Creative Industries” does not necessarily mean that the individual concerned knows anything about the creative arts.

My Sunday was spent in the company of cycling friends on a ride from Greenwich Pier to the Whitechapel Gallery in Aldgate, east London. This is a splendid building, and well worth a visit, whatever is on display. The frontage is classic Art Nouveau, and looks straight out of Darmstadt.

My friends and I were at the Whitechapel Gallery to view a small exhibition of government-owned artworks, normally kept in embassies and other UK government buildings around the world. The exhibition, which runs until 4 September and to which entry is free, features works selected by seven public figures: Paul Boeteng, Nick Clegg, Samantha Cameron, Peter Mandelson, Anne Pringle, John Sawers and Ed Vaizey.

There are a few interesting works on display, but I was underwhelmed by the experience as a whole. Paul Boeteng gives prominence to an oil on canvas work by Osmund Caine depicting a subtly homoerotic scene within a racially-mixed WWII army barracks in Aldershot. Samantha Cameron’s favoured works include a Lowry painting and a statuette by Elisabeth Frink, while Nick Clegg’s chosen pieces are depressingly reflective of the cultural dark age in which he grew up. For example, the deputy prime minister includes a hideous acrylic on canvas painting by David Tindle of a 1970s thermos flask. Study this image for more than a minute, and you may lose the will to live.

Mandelson is rather grand and classical, with Flemish sculptor John Michael Rysbrack among his chosen artists. And to show that he is still hip and groovy, despite the ermine stole and haughty manner, Mandelson also includes an “edgy” painting for the 1950 Festival of Britain by Cecil Stephenson. What is it with this obsession with artistic ‘edge’?

Moving on to the diplomatic corps, Anne Pringle, who is currently Britain’s woman in Moscow, focuses on the 17th and early 20th centuries, while Britain’s spy chief John Sawers, whose art selection I found the most interesting, features an Albert Goodwin night scene in late 19th century Cairo, a reinterpretation by Claude Heath of two aerial views of the Scottish mountain Ben Nevis, and a very nice 1971 oil on board painting by Norman Blamey, featuring the artist and his wife Margaret viewed through a mirror. Going by his aesthetic, John Sawers is a clearly man of culture and discernment, though his choice of a Bridget Riley stripe painting left me feeling a bit queasy.

And finally we come to the title of this exhibition review. The art critic and media tart Brian Sewell may be a pompous arse, but when it comes to that clichéd enfant terrible Tracy Emin, he is right on the ball. Tory minister Ed Vaizey selected two inane scribblings by the celebrated artist whose “cunt is wet with fear”, commenting that she charmed him at a recent dinner party, and that he spent his childhood holidays with an aunty and uncle in Emin’s home town of Margate. Stellar.