The most purely interesting thing in How to Improve the World, the exhibition drawn from the Arts Council Collection and currently showing at the Hayward Gallery, is the moment when you enter. This being the Hayward, you can see straight away not only all of the first gallery but much of the second beyond, and quite a bit of the third to your right. Presumably much to the annoyance of other visitors, I stood there in the doorway for longer than I spent with any of the works themselves, trying to work out how I felt. Was I excited by this spread laid out in front of me like a wedding buffet? Or was I already, right from the start, a bit grossed out by the lurid melange of vol-au-vents and trifle?
What a hiding to nothing it must have been, having this show to put together. The Arts Council Collection has, of necessity, been accumulated piecemeal across sixty years, not on the basis of a particular artistic agenda but out of a need to buy (and protect) certain pieces representatively; everything that's here is here because it represents something that isn't (quite) here, something to do with capital or reputation or the summary encapsulation of 'creative' movement. Choosing its highlights can be no more than a further distillation of the representative, like picking a fantasy football team from the last sixty years, and being superficially excited by some of the impossible partnerships that might then be fielded, but knowing deep-down that the differences between players in style and language and expectation would make any such team profoundly dysfunctional.
So what do you do? How do you organise these displays? To present the work chronologically would be invidious at almost every stage; to opt for a modal or thematic schema would be undynamic and distracting. And so (to quote the leaflet): "works from different periods are shown together, to suggest connections and affinities while as far as possible allowing each to stand alone." Which is plainly the best solution. Except that the thing about suggesting connections and affinities seems to have got lost somewhere along the line. Maybe the dog ate it.
What we have here has been curated with a knife and fork, quite possibly in the dark or while Lost was on the telly. To call it haphazard would be to credit it with too much dynamism. The whole show looks like it fell out of a plane, some time ago, in a deserted city where there was no one to hear it land. Still, this does indeed "allow each [work] to stand alone". You loiter in the entrance for a couple of minutes thinking, what is this I've walked in on? And then you realize, it's a really bad party. A really really bad party where the music's too loud to talk to anyone but too boring to dance to; where the host has brought together all these friends from different parts of his life, and the only thing they have in common is him, and they're all jealous and mistrustful of each other, and the bathroom's full of long-weekend glossolaliacs laughing hysterically at each other's nosebleeds. You know, that party. Mama told me not to come.
So the best you can do -- and this tells us nothing about the Arts Council Collection, and also of course everything we need to know -- is wander around hoping that individual items will seem appealing, and not immediately be shouted down by some braying piece with which they've been placed in dazed-and-confused juxtaposition.
There's almost nothing in the first gallery that manages it (due to boorish pieces by Anish Kapoor and the ubiquitous Patrick Caulfield sucking all of the oxygen out of the room), save for a quietly sexy mid-60s sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, a sort of gourd-like thing called Spring which looks somewhat as if it might have a less buttoned-up secret life elsewhere, as a musical instrument say. The second gallery breathes more easily and has more quality works in it than any other region of the show: Ian Hamilton Finlay's Strawberry Camouflage is an unexpected treat (though not terrifically well-placed); Chris Ofili's Popcorn Shells from 1995 is a sumptuously detailed map of Cab Calloway's wildest imaginings, wearing its elephant-dung heart on its sequinned sleeve; and perhaps the most modestly beautiful works on paper in the exhibition, three Masks by Victor Willing (who appears to be receding from public and critical memory, sadly, not that long after his death): these pastel and charcoal drawings could almost be the work of a serene or ghostly Basquiat, though their coolness seems not at all dispassionate. Nothing in the show has a longer half-life.
Here, too, Cerith Wyn Evans's Diary: How to improve the world (you will only make matters worse) continued 1968 (revised), in which a chandelier-light and a computer screen in rather tense synchronization laboriously spell out a John Cage text in Morse. This is interesting enough to spend some extended time with, though you might want to spend some of that wondering whether the mordant joke of Evans/Cage's full title is intended to persist in the truncated name of the show itself.
One of Keith Tyson's Applied Artmachine drawings is also here, and, like all his work, repays attention both while you're with it and while you're on the bus afterwards. Other pieces, particularly in Gallery 3, can be more quickly assimilated but make a powerful impression: not least an earlyish Bacon pope-Head, which manages to retain a stark authority in this most conditional of environments; also 1=66,666, a sculpture by the peerless Stuart Brisley, more striking for its originating anger than its perhaps slightly prim visual presentation; a gorgeous Bob Law canvas, Bordeaux Black Blue Black, which seems to have excited a certain amount of humbugging comment, judging by the inevitable feedback display screen in the foyer; and the comparatively well-known New Stones, Newton's Tones, a quick but pleasing junk piece by Tony Cragg. All of these works struggle unnecessarily, though, due to the presence of two too-loud video works: Mona Hatoum's Memories of Distance - a fine and significant piece deserving of a room of its own, but made to seem boorish by the way it occupies the whole room (as does an irritating Martin Creed metronome piece in the previous space); and Susan Hiller's walled-off but bleeding installation Wild Talents, which lavishes a lot of sturm und drang on not much insight and never really achieves even as much as the sum of its parts.
More welcome video work can be found upstairs. It's rather lovely to see - of all things - Gilbert and George's Gordon's Makes Us Drunk -- I really hope the big Tate retrospective next year gives proper weight to the first few phases of their activity, there's something so charming and yet so unheimlich about their early video and film stuff and some of the graphic and postal work that preceded it. And Steve McQueen's Bear seems incredibly moving and beautiful this time round -- I can't remember where I saw it before, I suppose it must have been the Turner Prize exhibition whatever year he won it, but the stylishness of this film, the lightness and gravity, the playfulness and deep seriousness of it, has become truly persuasive and emotionally as well as cuturally resonant.
Also upstairs, some quietly rewarding work by Mary Kelly and (of course) Art & Language; a devastating John Latham assemblage; and a chance to see live, for the first time (for me), Hockney's iconic We Two Boys Together Clinging, which I like more than pretty much anything he's done since, except perhaps for his participation in the Bigger Splash film -- though it's unnerving to recall that one of the figures in We Two Boys... is a sort of representation not of Hockney himself (as the guide curiously asserts) but of Cliff Richard. (...Or am I wrong about this?).
The fifth room seems mostly to be Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. I didn't hang around.
In fact, honestly, I couldn't wait to get out. Although I've picked out some genuine highlights, and although on that basis -- in fact for the Willing and McQueen alone -- I'd recommend a visit (it's only a fiver: I think maybe they've dropped their prices) before it closes next month, it's nonetheless an energy-sapping show, discordant, muddled, and in itself drearily uncreative. It achieves the extraordinary feat of making the Hayward seem poky, and the very ordinary feat of making the Arts Council look self-regarding and disengaged.
By the way, yes, there is a piece by Mark Wallinger -- who, for my money, has turned out to be one of the most vital British artists of the last twenty years, along with Tyson and Ofili; but if you blink you'll miss it by a mile.