David Hockey has redesigned The Sun’s masthead. Savvy PR campaign, or a terrible lapse of judgement?
The news that David Hockney had redesigned the masthead for red-top The Sun, ahead of a major retrospective of his work at Tate Britain next week, was met with general disbelief and disappointment this evening. As images of the redesign (for tomorrow’s edition) were revealed on social media, surprise was professed that Hockney – one of Britain’s greatest living artists, and certainly (until now) a national treasure — had made what will surely be seen as a terrible lapse of judgement in many quarters.
Such was the incredulity that some have suggested that, given the nature of the redesign – a mimicry of the tabloid’s logo, rendered in wobbly, childlike lines – that Hockney, who said he “was delighted to be asked”, was getting one over on The Sun by “trolling” them. Would that it were true. This is a hopeful, too-sympathetic viewpoint; while it’s hardly vintage Hockney, nor are his recent iPad paintings.
And let’s just consider The Sun: a publication built on Page 3, and headlines like: “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. Who could forget – and none do in Merseyside – the lies about Liverpudlians after the Hillsborough disaster? “The Truth; some fans picked pockets of victims; some fans urinated on the brave cops; some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.” This “deeply damaging” slur has had a crushing, on-going effect on the city and its reputation for nearly 30 years.
The timing, though appearing embarrassing for Tate, looks to be no coincidence. In the face of findings reported by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport today starkly illustrating a significant decline in visitor figures to UK galleries for the first time in almost a decade, even the monolithic Tate can’t rest on its laurels. As the Guardian points out: “Tate galleries, which includes Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives, saw the greatest fall [of visits], from 7.9 million to 6.7 million.”
So, to sections of Tate’s marketing and/or senior management teams, Hockney’s collaboration with The Sun (albeit viewed through the rosiest of rose-tinted spectacles) might have looked like canny timing; guaranteeing potential new audience members from a historically unlikely source. Courting a tabloid like The Sun, however, with all of the repugnant associations and easy, sordid connotations that entails, can only be viewed – even with the most cursory of glances – as a huge misstep by the usually savvy Tate. Hockney, widely regarded as an artist to have stood the test of time, guarantees a huge audience wherever he goes, making this type of marketing ploy hardly necessary. So, vast readership or not, getting in bed with The Sun surely remains something of a monumental gamble for an institution that prides itself not only on the quality of artist it can attract and exhibit, but more than most, prides itself on its progressive outlook and public perception.
So, why does one of the world’s leading art brands need to align itself with The Sun? We have no idea. In fact, when one considers what The Sun really represents to so many people, this is a bizarre, bordering on nauseating, move. Perhaps stepping back and looking at the bigger picture (rather than the short termism this surely means) would have been wise. Who in their right mind would suggest such a tie-in that coincides with the very moment a Northerner – The Whitworth’s Maria Balshaw — has been appointed as the new head of Tate? For many, this will be difficult to comprehend.
The Double Negative