Friday, October 16, 2009

Wasting Art on the Public?

Jonathan Jones has a point to make in his latest blog post over at the Guardian, but the way he made it was guaranteed to be divisive, essentially arguing that the Tate Modern's latest turbine installation (Miroslaw Balka's "How It Is") is wasted on the public because they're not responding seriously enough to the work to actually get it. The issue of how people respond to art in museums (see these recent protests about treating a visit to a museum as one might a theme park or as speed-snapshotting assignment) and what can be done to improve the situations seems to be in the air, but rather than giving the public the benefit of his doubt, Jones mixes his proposed solution with a curmudgeonly cry to "Grow up!"

Miroslaw Balka's black hole at Tate Modern is terrifying, awe-inspiring and throught-provoking. It embraces you with a velvet chill. As you ascend the ramp into what you might imagine to be a vastly enlarged cattle truck or gas van, the ghosts of the 20th century seem to march alongside you into nothingness.

At least this is what it might be like, if it wasn't for the hysterical laughter of teenagers, the fairground screams of tourists, the thuds and bangs of people jumping up and down to test the strength of the steel floor, and the loud comments of people saying they thought it would be darker.

Is the Tate Modern audience ready for a chilling and serious work that invites contemplation of death and dereliction and the Holocaust? Apparently not, if the annoying atmosphere on the first public day of the exhibit was anything to go by.

Jones does go on to suggest a simple and sensible solution to the problem:
Perhaps a queuing system, a limit on numbers, a film about Auschwitz before you go in might help.
But that came too late in the post to prevent the some blistering counter-attacks from his readers, such as:
  • Anything that punctures the pretension of Tate Modern is to be applauded.
  • A site-specific work doesn't work in the specific site. Let's blame the public.
  • [and one so snarky it should win an award]: Art is only for the few. The marauding middle class scum that invade galleries at the weekends would be much better off at Thorpe Park or Disney land Please leave Art to the educated, thinking intellectuals who understand this stuff and can pay due respects to the solemn, serious, respectful spectator who comes armed with the correct cultural equipment.
    In fact, why not round up all the Thickos and put them on a train, and then we can transport them across the countryside in the middle of the night and then we can put them in a camp of their own, where they can watch the X factor, read the Daily Mail and eat non-organic produce all the time.
    In the evenings they can have lectures on the correct response to alter-modern work, and then they can come back to Tate Modern, re-trained re-sensitised and able to fully appreciate the subtle metaphors explored by Balka.
Then there was a comment that made Jones' complaint seem entirely self-absorbed:
I want joyful children laughter in democracy...not fake concerned establishment pathos.
A part of my family got send to the camp.
I dance for them and sing loud enjoying living life in each moment.
If we don't consider the first more important than the second we might drift straight into the same dehumanising mess...for "holy" reasons.
Lesson learned? Suggesting the public is the problem never makes your solution to a situation go over very well. Had Jonathan made a modest proposal rather than a lecturely admonition (and the museum had heeded his advice), he might have made allies among his fellow frustrated art viewers longing to experience the piece as was intended AND the rest of the visitors who simply are responding naturally and honestly to the work.

Labels: art museums, art viewing


Blogger Brent said...

Now, I haven't seen the work so am not qualified to judge how effective it is, and if the complaints have merit, but this rings of "Artwork has never failed, but people have failed artwork." Which is a nice philosophy if you don't want to face the painful fact you may have failed to communicate when you desperately wanted to do so.

In my foray into the Contemporary art world, the most successful works connect with their intended audience in some way. If the artists meant everyone to see it and be moved in a particular way, then what can you say when they don't? To avoid self examination you can declare everyone a philistine if you like. But perhaps you should see what works and what doesn't before you do so?

10/16/2009 09:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Whenever a writer compliments a work of art by calling it "thought-provoking," I wonder what his mind was doing, if anything, before something provoked it to think.

10/16/2009 09:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

I haven't seen the work in question, but (elitism alert) this sounds like a case of people not appreciating the difference between appropriate public and private behavior. This is evident everywhere - on the street when people talking on cel phones or looking at their blackberrys aren't watching where they're walking, people who use the space around them as if they were in their own home when they are on a crowded subway, and yes, people jumping up and down and hollering in museums. Call me elitist (it's not necessarily a bad thing) but museums should be places of contemplation and communion with the work. Yes, a fair amount of the contemporary art one encounters sucks, but there are several things to do with that.
1) leave.
2) protest or complain about the suckiness by getting proactive and do something about it, which does not mean disrupting the experience of people in the gallery who are having a meaningful experience with the work.
I don't have religion but the museum can sometimes function as a temple and that's not a bad thing.

I don't think requiring visitors to watch a film about the Holocaust before viewing an artwork is a good idea; it's condescending and preachy. Maybe just a sign asking people to be respectful and quiet, the way some old cathedrals in Europe used to have signs for the tourists reminding them to show respect for the religion being practiced there and not treat it as a tourist attraction (i.e. not to come in wearing shorts and bikini tops).

10/16/2009 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

John Eaves, one of the designers of the "Enterprise E" for the movie, Star Trek: First Contact, came up with an early design that he really liked. Then someone looked at the top view of the ship and remarked, "It looks like a chicken trussed up in a roasting pan." And indeed it did. Back to the drawing board.

I've watched a video tour of How It Is, and I wonder if Balka failed to step back and see that his concept was a lot like the "Fun House" trailers that travel with carnivals. It seems visitors haven't failed to notice, or to act appropriately.

10/16/2009 03:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric c said...

Hmm.. From a superficial distance, it does make me wonder: what's in the work that makes it specifically about the Holocaust?
How does one know it's about the holocaust unless they are told?
Maybe I should read the PR but judging from this article it sounds rather un-obvious.

This said, a work about the holocaust is almost offensive to me these days because these artists often seem oblivious that at the moment there are a lot of painful things happening in the world, including millions of people dying from starvation.
500 000 people die from crime violence (steert gangs) every year in South America. Genocide killing is still a reality in some places. I'm not saying the Holocaust wasn't an important event but, we've heard about it, we know just about everything about it. Please look at what is going on AROUND you.

Cedric C

10/16/2009 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

Over a period of time I followed Jonesyboy on the Guardian site & except for those rare occasions when he slipped up & showed some insight many of his comments seemed to be made either without reflection or with the sole intent of stirring the pot in order to draw attention to himself. Judging from his latest observation his style does not seemed to have changed.

It's very easy to target the general public when they fail to respond in a serious manner to a work of art but is it not possible that the work itself failed to reach those other than the 'enlightened'. The Turbine Hall is a huge space & difficult to manage. When one is working on this scale it poses an enormous problem for the artist to make & keep contact with the visitor. I haven't had the chance to see the work but from certain images Balka seems to have provided something reminiscent of a film set & should visitors, especially those too young to have the weight of the camps in their subconscious, respond as though they were acting out roles in some dark, futuristic film I would not be surprised.

The question of considerate behaviour in public places & respect for others is, to my mind, more a question of parental upbringing & social etiquette & I am not convinced that showing images from Auschwitz would induce more than a temporary pause.

10/16/2009 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger The Reader said...

I was reading that J. Jones post + comments right before I came to this blog. I was about to add a comment myself but was a little put off by the polemical nature of the comments that had already been posted. I'll agree with Tony's comment, in that I think if your looking for a bit of internet biffo then you can often find an antagonistic way of responding to Jone's posts.

But I think he raises a much more important issue than the spleen-splitting claims of elitism might indicate. That is the question of the agency of the viewer in being able to alter their art viewing experience (and perhaps that of others).

With that in mind we could come up with some other solutions to Jone's problem. A one-dollar pair of earplugs would surely change the way you experience the work. Or a slightly more expensive solution; noise cancelling headphones.

Larger point being that the ways that we engage with each individual art-work alter in a very important way the experience that we have of it. I'm all for use whatever is available to get more of a sense of the experiential-possibility-space of the work. Viewing art can be a creative practice too.

10/16/2009 06:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the first things humans do when they enter a large dark cave is to make whooping noises. They just do.

10/16/2009 09:18:00 PM  
Anonymous bm said...

The comment Oriane makes about a sign makes good sense. I also agree with his idea that museums are not play grounds (my words).

I visited Auschwitz several years ago and was appalled by my friends standing under the entrance sign (Arbeit Macht Frei) with a smile to have pictures taken. This is no place for such acts.

The question seems to be where and who decides to draw the line.

10/17/2009 04:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Let's face it. It looks like a cinema prop. People don't laugh when they visit Auschwitz. This looks like it's a little too blunt and literal and, dare I say, rather manipulative and forced. I mean... If it IS supposed to evoke a gaz chamber. And anyways, what would that give the spectator to feel what it's like to enter a gaz chamber? Can someone explain the servitude of that? Do I walk up on a bonfire to know what Joan Of Arc felt like? And would I ever really know? (unless I burned alive surrounded by tons of gazers)

Seriously, maybe the work isn't so much the problem as this whole "it's about Auschwitz" thing.
Where is the poetry in that, Jones? Maybe it should be more like a James Turrell piece where you leave the visitor pick up what they want it to be about. From what I understand it's mostly an experiential piece. When your body senses are triggered, your intellectual senses are always
pulled to the second plan. Especially if the work involves walking in pitch black. And you expect people to come up with a deep intellectual response in a snap?

The mention that "only connoissors" would get it only makes me want to hang with the "stupids" and laugh really hard ("haha! It's just one big aluminium box!!"...There...).

Cedric C

10/17/2009 07:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Err...ok, people "usually" don't laugh at Auschwitz, except bm's friend. ;-)


10/17/2009 07:48:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

Let’s see… the artist constructs a big dark space that is supposed to stand for systematic extermination and people have trouble taking him seriously….

Except Jones, who clings to reverence in the face of a debilitating lack of humor. If they laugh it’s because it’s silly you moron!





I just looked up holocaust in the dictionary and it defines it as ‘wholesale sacrifice’.

Now I’m more confused. Were all those victims actually given a choice?

10/17/2009 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

I have a friend who once created an indoor installation with grass sod covering the floor, security cameras and video projections. It was a very serious work dealing with identity, subjectivity, and privacy.

About halfway into the opening night some children who were there with their parents started to play duck-duck-goose on the indoor lawn. And it was like, well yeah, what else would you do on a lawn?

The artist loved that new dimension (in fact we all started to play with them) and it seemed like the children showed us all a better use for the material.

10/17/2009 04:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When crap meets bullshit you aint going to get apple pie!It is so sad when the world doesn't react the way we think it should ? Most contemporary art is so obvious one wonders when the public doesn't get it. Maybe some pictures of third world people or women with body issues would help. Or a giant dog made of flowers. I bet when people see that giant dog they are afraid to laugh thinking they don't really get it. But they do!

10/18/2009 03:26:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

BTW – Jones is one of this year’s judges for The Turner Prize, the finalists currently under consideration.

Jones’ distinguished record as artist, collector, dealer, curator and historian speak volumes for the ideals and esteem in which the prize is held.

10/21/2009 02:47:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

I agree with Oriane. If kids were running screaming through the Louvre or the Met's Painting galleries, we would call it inappropriate.

10/23/2009 07:21:00 AM  

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