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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 Rohes 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?
Isnt it about time the art world patterned itself to a greater
extent on the visual culture instead of on the white cube? Isnt
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
The 20th centurys 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
its 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 doesnt 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 ODoherty 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 cubes 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 dont want its value to diminish. Stability
in value, though, is still only an idea and not something given.
ODoherty 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 arent 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 isnt
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 doesnt 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 isnt
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 - havent 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? Dont 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 arts 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
theres no definite answer to this question.