Going through my blog feeds today I came across this great piece over at the Moon Under Water Blog about the amount of time that viewers spend in front of a work of art. (You really should visit and stick it on your bookmarks – Shane is endlessly fascinating, insightful and witty about all manner of things and is nowhere near as flippant as me.)
Like Shane I’d read the piece in the Daily Mail in which a reporter had recorded viewing times of visitors at Tate Britain and come to the conclusion that the gallery-going public don’t like modern art. Now I’m not going to deconstruct their argument fully since frankly I’d probably find the act of deconstructing the yapping of a particularly irritating Chihuahua infinitely more rewarding, but, as I was taking the customary shower I find necessary after reading the Mail, I did find myself admitting, like Shane, that there was an important point lurking under the predictable surface of “modern art is rubbish” sentiment.
So why is it that gallery visitors charge around galleries at breakneck speed? Is it, as the Mail’s article implies that modern art isn’t worthy of anything but the most fleeting attention?
Well obviously I’m going to discount that. As followers of this blog know I’m passionate about art from the earliest cave paintings to the most recent Turner Prize nominees. I find art exciting, intriguing, sometimes infuriating but always rewarding, providing, and this, I think is key, I give it the right kind of attention.
Different works of art require us to adopt different ways of looking, I remember a tutor once telling me that what was important about a work of art was not ‘what it means’ but ‘how it means’- understand the way a work of art, well, works and then you can start on unravelling the knotty business of meaning. Every work of art speaks if not a different language, then certainly a different dialect, and if you haven’t got a grasp of the basics you’re not going to get a great deal from it. Equally if you approach, say a Mondrian with the same expectations that you have of a Rembrandt, for example, the encounter is doomed to be a disappointment from the start.
The odd thing about out attitude to art is that we tend to misinterpret our inability to read the language as a failure of the artist or the work in a way that we don’t tend to do with other disciplines. We wouldn’t for example pick up a copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in the original Swedish and then dismiss Stieg Larsson as a lazy, incompetent con-artist because we can’t understand it, we wouldn’t expect to jump into a space shuttle with no training and then blame mission control when we couldn’t get it off the ground, so why do we expect an encounter with a sculpture, painting or installation to require any less prior knowledge?
I think part of the problem is that, unless you pursue visual art from an early age at school, our visual education effectively stops once we’ve learned to read. We graduate from picture books to paperbacks with the occasional illustration and eventually to books that are nothing but text. The result of this is that without thinking we place the written word far higher in a hierarchy of communication than the image – the word holds authority, the picture is for kids. This subconscious attitude accounts, I think, for the snooty attitude of some towards those who illustrate children’s’ books, and for the fact that graphic novels have only comparatively recently been recognised as a form of literature worthy of the attention of broadsheet reviewers. We’re trained to put away the visual when we put away childish things.
And the effect of this demotion of the image on the gallery-goer flitting from work to work? They spend such short times in front of a artwork because they don’t expect it to require more time than a quick glance.
On the face of it this might sound like quite an elitist point of view – it’s not the fault of the artist; it’s the fault of the ill-educated viewer. But really it’s not, no more than it’s the ‘fault’ of the non-astronaut that they don’t know where the launch button is or the reader who doesn’t speak Swedish. I genuinely believe that anyone can ‘get’ art if they’re armed with the right tools. I used to teach art history to adult education students and my classes were made up of people from a wide range of backgrounds who had no previous experience of art education. At the end of the autumn term one year after a ten week ‘Introduction to 20th Century Art’ course I took them to the Turner Prize show – we were scheduled to stay for 2 hours, we ended up staying for four. I wish the Mail reporter had been there with his stopwatch that day; they stood for ages in front of installations of works by Simon Starling, Gillian Carnegie, Jim Lambie and Darren Almond and questioned, argued, debated and most importantly looked. After ten hour and half sessions, that’s 15 hours – less than a day – they were engaging not just with art, but with that great bugbear of the press Contemporary Art, they were excited by it, they were spending time with it and they were enjoying it. These weren’t members of some mythical media-savvy London elite, but a group of people from Crawley who’d just signed up for course because they fancied looking at some nice pictures and who hadn’t the sense to run for the hills when confronted by a scruffy, over-excitable stick-insect who showed them slides of urinals while bouncing around the room babbling about context.
As per usual I’m getting carried away, but hidden away in that last, rather tortuous sentence is, I think, the crux of the whole thing. It’s about the difference between looking at art and just seeing it. It’s about knowing the right questions to ask, it about knowing what to look for and it’s about enjoying it. It’s about realising that spending a bit more time with a work of art is worth it and it’s down to writers, bloggers, artists, curators and educators to make people realise that and to do that we need to spend time with the art and with the viewers. We can’t expect people to stand in front of a box of fat and felt by Joseph Beuys and expect them to understand it on the basis of a paragraph on the wall, we need to welcome people into our subject and institutions and point them in the right direction, not in some patronising focus-group devised way with whizz-bang theatrics and gimmicks borrowed from The X-Factor, but by giving people credit for being naturally curious and by letting our passion and enjoyment for our subject draw people in. There’s nothing more infectious than someone talking with love, excitement and humour about their subject and in my experience that’s what you get if stick a couple of art people in a room together, so let’s share that enthusiasm and then maybe that Mail reporter lurking behind a Barbara Hepworth with a stopwatch will get bored after ten minutes and wander off to rummage through some footballer’s bins instead.
As a final word I suppose I ought to say something about Mark Tansey’s Action Painting II that’s sitting at the top of the page. Well, as well as an excuse for a rather clunky metaphor about space shuttles to satisfy my inner nerd, it’s a somewhat mischievous and possibly flippant response to a picture used to illustrate the Moon Under Water blog. One depicts a real situation, one depicts an impossible one but they’re both about the time we’re prepared to spend in the company of art compared to the time we’ll spend with the real world and that’s all I’m going to say. Well you didn’t expect all the answers now did you?