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Give Tate Modern to Keith Richards

Music legends of the 1960s might be welcome in today's pop music, but contemporary art shuns its old masters – why?

The Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin says somewhere, I believe, in his famous essay The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that people will accept a radicalism in popular art forms that they will never accept from the avant gardes of "high" art. Benjamin was writing in the era of Eisenstein. A lot of cut-ups have made it into the gallery since then. Audiences at Tate Modern seem pretty schooled to expect everything pre-deconstructed in the museum. The most interesting thing now about Benjamin's argument is that it also works the other way around. It is conversely true that the idea of the classics, the greats, the old masters, is universally accepted in pop music when it is nowadays widely spat on in the sphere of contemporary high art.

I've been listening to some 1960s favourites. The Beatles' Norwegian Wood, the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday, a bit of The Incredible String Band. I hasten to add that I was only four when the 60s ended. I wasn't at Altamont or anything. But when I was a teenager, much later, it was obvious that rock music had reached a peak of imagination and brilliance in the 1960s – and it's still obvious. Does anyone dispute that? More crucially, does anyone think it trashes today's music to say so? There is a maturity, a common sense about critics and consumers of popular music that is totally absent from the high arts. No one thinks it demeans Lady Gaga to admire Madonna.

There is a sense of history in the appreciation of pop that completely eludes today's debates about art. It is clear to everyone that golden ages of rock'n'roll have existed in the past and produced enduring classics: it's a historical fact, and to deny the greatness of an old song such as Sweet Jane would be to deny the worth of the art form as such. So why can't fans of contemporary art accept similarly obvious historical facts, such as the enduring freshness and immediacy of the Renaissance and Baroque painters? And the fact that Matisse and Picasso are the Beatles and Stones of modern art?

See where I'm headed? There are classics and there is the new. The new is always worth hearing and worth seeing – you never know when and where the next genius will come from. But you don't help give birth to the new by ignorance of what went before. Rock has a sense of tradition that has been broken in our museums. Keith Richards has a great private library of the blues. He cares for it and catalogues it. He is proud to archive a heritage.

They should have made him the new director of Tate Modern. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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