Institutionalised Art – or are galleries really worth it?

Institutionalised Art – or are galleries really worth it?

Mikhail Iakovlev questions the institution of the art gallery

Last weekend I went on a date at Tate Modern – an exciting and free alternative to all-night drinking in Brixton it seemed. Little did I know that I would spend the whole time questioning not only curation decisions particular to Tate, but also the role of the 21st century art-gallery as a space dedicated to the enjoyment of art. Clearly, such deep ponderings – however desirable – leave little space for silly little things like romantic chirping.

You could be excused for wondering what on Earth brought such deep philosophical thoughts into my pretty little head? There are two sides to it. Initially, I was quite surprised by the way some individual artwork was exhibited. Later I realised that the way the collection was organised as whole raised some questions too. Tout court, it seems that the curators at Tate are more concerned with preserving artefacts as examples of a particular movement, rather than with creating a space where the visitor could interact meaningfully with art. Of course, you could point me to the East End to disprove this. And in fact I’ll agree. But, the galleries I’m talking about are the large, state-owned ones like Tate in Britain, MoMA in New York or the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

Let’s get back to Tate then. Almost the first thing one sees when starting on its permanent collection is Hélio Oiticica’s B11 Box Bólide 09 (unless one is a rebel who rejects Tate’s chronological, movement-based arrangement that is).  Oiticia incorporated different shelves that could be pulled out and their contents touched into his Box. So one could say, he intended his artwork to be touched as well as seen. Well someone at Tate made the somewhat arbitrary decision to encapsulate the Box in a glass display. But that was just the beginning; later on I got to enjoy the wonderfully preserved chalkboards used by Joseph Beuys for some lectures he gave at Bochum University. These are just two examples of what seems like an underlying problem of art in the twenty first century: namely its institutionalisation.

This is indeed the point Don Foresta makes, when he talks about art being put back inside the “frame” after the explosion of interactive and performance art in the 70s and 80s. Too much emphasis is given to particular artefacts, rather than the artistic experience as a whole. Present-day gallery curators remind me most of miserly capitalists, the like of Scrooge. They aim to preserve, catalogue the booty they got their hands on instead of simply enjoying what they’ve got.  And clearly everything that can’t be valued and put inside a glass box – dance and Conceptualist art spring to mind – ought to be quietly forgotten. Busy maximizing the ratio of artwork per unit space used, they have no time to think about such trifling matters as encouraging each individual visitor to establish a meaningful personal relationship with each individual artwork.

As I was leaving the gallery, I texted a friend to talk about my experience. She [un]helpfully pointed out that perhaps I had  misunderstood the whole point of having galleries like the Tate. What if their aim is to maximise access to the largest possible body of art by the largest possible number of people in order to give them a taste of a bit of everything and they could take it from there? In my opinion this is precisely what they don’t do! As an extreme example, think about trekking around Le Louvre with its 60 thousands square metres (652,300 square feet) of exhibition space… At some point the paintings begin to blur, no longer is Michelangelo distinguishable from Watteau. It seems that the only way to appreciate anything is to already know what you’re looking for.

And it’s not just the size that’s the problem – the whole arrangement seems to discourage individual engagement with art. For starters, exhibiting works from the same movement in the same room shapes the way the first-time visitor will interact with that art. For example, when works by Malevich and Mondrian hang side by side, we are subconsciously encouraged to view them as similar that robs them of their individuality and hinders the differences from becoming apparent. Then there’s the culture of hanging mini-dissertations by each and every artwork telling us exactly what we should think about it.

For me this is where it stops being ‘art’. The appreciation of artwork rests on a delicate balance between the artist and the observer. It seems that once the gallery-curators have stuck their fingers in trying to preserve the artwork, while telling us exactly what to think about it, this balance is lost. 

Featured Image: Hans Peter Schaefer,  London, Tate Modern, 2001

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