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  • Joshua Ballance

Some More Gallery Observations

Another piece inspired by my recent gallery-hopping. I struggled extensively with this: in large part it’s born out of a gut-level discomfort that I struggled to name and then develop a coherent, non-judgemental critique of. Anyway, here goes.


Walking around MoMA in particular, I was fascinated by how for so many people a trip to a gallery appears to be an extended opportunity to scroll through social media, punctuated by photoshoots of a few select works (Starry Night, Water Lilies, a Pollock Number Piece if you’re particularly edgy). For one lady I observed, the only time she actually seemed to look at a painting ‘in the flesh’ was when posing for a photo of her looking at the painting. Otherwise, everything was mediated through a phone camera. This absolutely isn’t restricted to the young: this is as much a tendency of retirees as teenagers! This bemuses me for a number of reasons.


Firstly, what do people get out of this? Why spend $25 on your ticket? If I were to ask someone once they left what they enjoyed about the gallery, what would they say? Presumably social coding has something to do with it: visiting a gallery is typically seen as a desirable and praiseworthy pursuit, a socially sanctioned use of one’s leisure time, and so one may well feel better having spent an afternoon in a gallery rather than watching TV (which tends to fall to the bottom of the socially ordered hierarchy of cultural pursuits through no fault of its own).


Secondly, how did particular works attain this level of celebrity? How has Van Gogh managed to become another crucial addition to the Instagram story, alongside the perfect eggs benedict and a technicolour cosmopolitan? Are these just the vagaries of reception? Why do we seem to have a particular fixation on the turn of the twentieth century? I suppose there’s something about the combination of nice colours, some degree of realism but not too much, and a general French elegance that appeals. There is obviously something ‘artsy’ going on, but without too much of the surface-level abrasion you might find in a work by Schiele or Kokoschka (in much the same way that a superficial listening to Jeux seems to be more appealing than Pierrot, although both are similarly disorientating once you engage in your listening).


Thirdly, I’ve always been confused by the need to try and take the ‘perfect’ photo of a work. I better understand pictures of someone next to a painting. This makes sense as a record of the act of observation. But why try and line up the perfect picture, free of other visitors’ elbows and rucksacks, and saved from the inevitable glare of the lighting? There will be a better one online, I promise. It’s been suggested to me that even trying to take this perfect photo is a record of one’s own experience of it, which I guess I understand, but I don’t see why, if the point is to document this experience, people don’t then include themselves.


At this point it’s worth acknowledging how judgmental this sounds, and I want to say that I really don’t mean it to be necessarily critical. At the end of the day, higher visitor numbers and more money for the arts can, on net, probably only be a good thing. Putting aside that rather instrumental justification, people experience art in all sorts of ways, and it would be totally wrong to have a prescriptive experience in mind for when people visit a gallery. I feel very strongly that exposure to great cultural experiences is a massively important part of human life and I’ll forever defend the importance of widespread accessibility to the arts.


And yet, there’s something that leaves me uncomfortable about these works becoming no more than another object on the sightseeing tour, and not actually even to be seen but merely to be seen to be seen, and then abandoned. At the end of the day, I simply refuse to believe that 5 seconds in front of something is enough time to start appreciating it fully, or even at all (although I definitely feel that it’s long enough to realise you’re not interested in spending any more time with a work!).


I’d love to know what would happen to a gallery that banned phones (probably, lots of people taking photos of themselves by the front door!). Occasionally exhibitions will attempt to prevent photographs: I think I recall that David Hockney tried that at his recent RA exhibition, with, from what I could see, limited success. Along the same lines, I’m curious to know what galleries looked like 50 years ago, before cameras became as universal. My guess is that social media accelerated a desire to record these experiences, but that family photobooks from the ‘90s and ‘00s will be full of snaps featuring family members in front of many of these same works. But maybe not, maybe it’s the widespread sharing through social media that has created the fame of these particular pieces, put them on the sight-seeing map at all, and encouraged the preservation of the act of experiencing them.


Another phenomenon I noticed—and here I am as guilty as anyone else—was the gravitation towards the accompanying text. I wonder if this is part of the same thing. There’s something in the text that’s comparatively easy: to read a caption, or an introductory paragraph, is temporally constrained. We know when we’ve started and, crucially, when we’ve finished. The text asks little of us: we needn’t, necessarily, explore it ourselves but can imbibe the content almost passively. It’s unlikely there will be much emotional interaction; instead, we can distract ourselves from the difficult artwork by focussing on the containable, bounded, content. In fact, it’s amazing how easily a visit to an art gallery becomes a succession of captions, with only a glance at the object we’re ‘meant’ to focus on. You see this in music too. 15 minutes or so into a performance, as our concentration starts to wane, we often turn to the programme notes in an effort to distract ourselves.


I think the act of experiencing art has to be an emotional one, but this is a reciprocal undertaking. The audience has to give as much as the artwork does. Effort is involved, and that’s ok! Experiencing art can and should be a difficult experience, a challenging one, but it’s an activity that ultimately leaves us spiritually refreshed and invigorated on a deeper level. If we hope for it to be easy, a quick glance at this painting, a skim through a novel, we miss out on a huge amount. So sure, take the photo posing in front of Starry Night, but give it another minute of your time without the phone, and see what you find.

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