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The ghost of the white cube

The heydays of modernism, when art was an affair to be taken seriously and only to be approached with the greatest respect, are already quite some years behind us, but visit a museum and one might think otherwise. For many exhibitions Mies van der Rohe’s motto: ‘less is more’, still holds, as if postmodernism is yet to be invented. The ‘Hunger nach Bildern’ may keep us going day in day out, visual culture may be inescapable, but at exhibitions the image is still relatively rare. Art deserves the highest attention, such is the prevailing view in the art world, diversion is to be found elsewhere.
If the image is really furthered by so much attention, then why does the visual culture outside the shrines of art offer a totally different formula? Why are television, cinema, advertising, the new media governed by principles so very unlike those governing the museum? Why does the image rather manage to maintain itself there in an environment of abundance, of noise, of distraction, and is sound allowed to be a regular factor, synaesthesia even being one of the keys to success? Isn’t it about time the art world patterned itself to a greater extent on the visual culture instead of on the white cube? Isn’t it about time for art to fully merge with visual culture, lest it might be sidetracked by it?

The need to ease art away from life, and to put it up in a neutral, detached space is an invention of the past century. At the start of the exhibition system as we now know it, more than 200 years ago, exhibitions presented a different story. Paintings were displayed like at home: row upon row, covering the walls from floor to ceiling. Sometimes the exhibition rooms had furniture in them, so one could sit down comfortably to have a quiet look around. The more the merrier was the idea then, at any rate there was a lot to be seen. Only later, after about a century of jam-packed exhibitions, the need arose, around the beginning of the 20th century, to show works of art under circumstances optimised for the individual work. Under the influence of reform movements advocating a simpler and ‘lighter’ way of domestic living, the museum presentations too changed their character. Spaces were lightened up, the superabundance was rigourously reduced. Separation became the keyword of 20th century art presentation, so that one could concentrate better on the work, and also making it possible to see the various works of an artist in a better perspective. Solo presentations highlighting individual development, are a typical late 19th century invention, due to which the presentation of art was substantially refined.
The 20th century’s perfection of this tendency is the white cube. Within this neutral, white space separated from ordinary life, looking at art turned into a real cult of the work and the individual. The white cube is the domain of the timeless work of art detached from the context that dates it. Within the white cube the work of art is cut loose from its genesis and is placed outside of time, even outside of life. It receives a distinct status that should make it universal and immortal. In the white cube art is something sacrosanct. A lot of 20th century art has come to believe in the ideology of the white cube, and has gradually come to look upon the serene space separated from life as its natural habitat. Consequently this art automatically is keeping life and visual culture more and more at a distance. White cube art has a preference for the seclusion, the silence, the scarcity, and the concentration. White cube art beliefs in itself, in its significance as pure image and regards this visibility to be the first, if not the only then surely the foremost requirement that can put to art. White cube art wants to be universal.

The white cube goes to great lengths to efface itself on behalf of art and to provide it with a neutral, uniform environment. Whether it’s the city, a park or the jungle at the other end of the world: within the white cube all art is shown under more or less equal circumstances. Yet this universality, this so-called neutrality is only apparent. For though the white cube may pretend that it doesn’t really exist, and that everything is at the service of the art it shows, it is in fact absolutely full of interests. In the past four decennia this concealed ideology of the white cube has been uncompromisingly exposed. In his study “Inside The White Cube”, dating from the 70s, the artist Brian O’Doherty describes at length how the white cube is embedded within a network of social-political and economic parties. Parties bent on establishing that art is at least stable in value, like the galleries which can sell their art at higher prices thanks to the white cube’s exclusiveness, like the artists who besides their direct economic interests, also want to attain immortality by their work, and like the institutions which themselves invest substantially in art and therefore don’t want its value to diminish. Stability in value, though, is still only an idea and not something given.
O’Doherty also describes how numerous artists since the 60s are opposing the pseudo neutrality of the white cube. Artists like Michael Ascher and Hans Haacke disclose the ideological principles of the white cube, strip it as it were off its allegedly neutral appearance, and point out the networks with which it is related. In the 80s this art-political protest continued with a generation of artists who by way of representations tried to let ordinary life gain access again to the quiesced domain of the white cube. It constituted a more or less vulgar commentary on the elitist, classical, introvert, abstract white cube art. In recent years the protest has focused attention on the public. Everybody knows that white cubes aren’t really keen on people. A flood of people is disastrous for the sought-after calm. In the end one sees only people, and hardly works anymore. The white cube also compels one to behave abnormally. Speaking isn’t allowed, nor is making noise. Everything is dominated by the voiceless visibility, by pure seeing. One could even say that the body in its entirety is an undesired factor. For imagine e.g. that the body gives air to its corporality, gets tired or ill and wants to sit down for a while. The white cube doesn’t know how to deal with earthly behaviour that violates the solemn seclusion, the complete rest and concentration required of the sacred art within the white cube. As a reaction to this there have been in recent years several initiatives to give the public its body back. Taking pleasure in art isn’t any longer purely something of the eyes, the body also has to be reckoned with and therefore is being addressed in numerous ways: it is pampered, gets massaged, is given a good shaking, sometimes very literally. All these forms of extra-perceptual interaction with the public challenge the ideology of pure visibility of the white cube, and are therefore to be taken as efforts to gradually place looking at art once again within ordinary earthly existence, instead of the white heaven of art, the ethereal isolation, the distinct status.

Despite the efforts to break through the protected domain of the white cube, one has to conclude that the white cube still prevails in art. But forty years of protest have discredited the ideology of the white cube that was long held inviolable. By now the white cube is just one of several possible exhibition models and has to condone that the ideas it propagated – art being an universally given that without context has the same value everywhere - haven’t stood up. For that matter, the protest of past years has indeed made some sense and has shown how much art depends on its environment, literally as well as metaphorically. This realisation of the relevance of the context is also an important aspect of the exhibition ‘wssohwte?’ that examines under the influence of the environment what the public takes with it from the outside to the inside and vice versa. At other recent exhibitions sound is often a steady companion. An increasing number of exhibitions is accompanied by a soundtrack as a subtle pointer to visual culture.
Art apparently wants to leave the asylum that the white cube is, but nevertheless remains convicted to it. For although visual culture may provide a splendid source of inspiration, and a challenge to be in, how much openness is actually desirable? Don’t the seclusion and uniqueness of the image within the white cube count for something too? Or is it necessary to take a radically different view, and is it precisely art’s duty to persevere in the seclusion, the scarcity, the concentration within its own ‘soundless’ (modernistic) niche, and is that noisy visual culture simply best kept out? As yet there’s no definite answer to this question.