Art, Social Media and Art Institutions

One of my particular bugbears about art shows is the amount of information that is often to be found crowding the works.

The TATE is particularly guilty of this – each room has a wall of writing, in addition to the leaflet you’re given to take with you round the room, and the catalogue to buy, as if the title of a work next to it wasn’t enough. And then there’s the little knee-high fences, that are supposed to stop you getting too close to the painting, while the jumpy security guards shuffle around following you in case you breathe too heavily.

I went to see the Chris Ofili show at the TATE Britain last week, in the last few days before it closed, and the levels of control reached a new and irksome height.

Before you even got in the show, there was a sign saying “No mobile phones, No cameras.”

Now, the issue with all this stuff is that it prevents the work from breathing. At the end of the day, a description of an artist’s work is essentially one person’s interpretation, ie. Not Yours. Straight away, we’re into a massive contradiction here. The TATE is supposed to be a public space, and yet there is an issue of neutrality around an interpretation of a work, especialy when the organisation hosting the show belongs to the state. Couple that with the fact that you’re being charged to get in to that part of the public space as well, and the mixed messages start to pile up higher than the Duveen Gallery’s cavernous ceiling.

Coming back to the “no mobile phones” sign. I quite like to use Twitter when I’m walking around a show. It’s a good way of collecting my thoughts with regards to certain paintings, it’s also a record of those thoughts that I can refer back to when I get home, and you can end up getting into some nice debates with other Twittists while you’ve got the work in front of you. Now, of course the idea that someone might use that camera phone to snap a picture of the work does creep in, but there’s a problem right there….

As I tweeted at the door to the show @tate (BEFORE I went in if you’re reading this Mr. Serota), tweeting about a show will make people more interested in it, and ultimately lead to more people through the door of the TATE, more bums on seats of the café, more catalogue sales, etc., etc. To stop people getting phones out in a show is a stupid shot in the foot for the gallery. And let’s (briefly) address the subject of taking photos in art shows. Instead of preventing people taking photos, why not default to the usual public space idea of no photos by anything that requires a tripod? That way, people would still take photos, and although the quality of those photos might be lower, it would necessarily draw people to come and look at the art, as everyone knows that no photo comes close to the actual experience of standing personally in the prescence of a piece of work – to actually be physically in the same space as the work. Also consider – if you took one really good photo of one of Chris Ofili’s paintings, reproduced it, and mass-distributed it for free, then I would lay a bet with you that that show would be more talked about, more on people’s fridges, workspaces and personal environments than ever before, and more visited than any other show in the history of the TATE. If I was to take a photo with my cameraphone, and make that picture my desktop, then every single one of my friends who saw my laptop would want to know all about it, and most likely go and see the show.

However, I know that this idea, should anyone from the TATE or any other major art institution be reading this, will probably be met with derision for very deeply ingrained reasons. Part of the drama, allure and value of the art world as it stands, is the fact that it is a secluded, hushed, and esoteric space that only the elite can sample. Art is a poker face. Art is method acting – the theatre and illusion, much like the actor who pretends to be something special for an audience, but goes home to a very ordinary life. The bigger the stature of the artist, the more essential it becomes to maintain that poker face.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the sense of drama, and I think that’s what people like about art and art shows – aside from some sense of visceral enjoyment, there is a kudos it gives you from saying “Oh yes, I went to an art show the other day.” It’s a social marker, an attitude, a crowd.

Any attempt to take a picture by the public bursts that bubble. It undermines quality control (how good is that image you taken? How many megapixels does your camera have?), and the proliferation of interactions by you and me, brings art down from it’s lofty heights (and dare I say it from the lofty prices of private collectors and high-end art dealing) into the Real World.

My point is that essentially this spoilt the show for me. This maelstrom of information overload and heavy-handed officiousness made it very hard for me to look at the work with a clear head, as the intense level of control essentially de-mystified the work – it had the opposite effect to the desired one! I was somehow reminded of the pieces’ construction and humble beginnings, somehow belittling them, drawing attention away from their drama and theatre instead of adding to it.

I tried really hard to shake myself free of this, but once something has been demystified in such a crass, un-thinking and haphazard way, it’s hard to get the genie back in the bottle.

The other part where I have a problem is the political intrusion of the TATE’s writings. Remember the TATE was founded on the back of the sugar industry. Sugar from slave labour. Much like the British Empire as a whole. The descendents of whom own the TATE gallery. The irony of one of Britain’s greatest artists, indeed a black artist, being mediated by writings by this British state (responsible for some of the most heinous crimes known against black people) in this way is so heavily loaded in so many different ways it gives me a headache. And no, I don’t think it’s just my white guilt.

It’s a shame, because I KNOW that Ofili’s Upper Room is a good piece of work, but all the other political stuff spoilt it for me, which is not Ofili’s fault at all. I’d love to be able to review this show, but I can’t clear my head enough to do so.

All of this leaves me wondering about my place in things, and how I want to proceed with my own working practise. Clearly I don’t have the clout to position myself in the same league as Chris Ofili. But a part of me wonders why I should want to? I can’t think of a good enough reason to want to be owned by an elite group of collectors other than greed. I could walk the walk and talk the talk, ring fence my work and talk about it in hushed, elevated tones, or I could try something else.

I’m not sure what I’m driving towards, but there’s something about the art that is more powerful when it’s found in the ordinary. In the act of sharing work and the stories behind those works, in proliferating them by re-sharing those extraordinary artistic moments as they happen through the channels available to me. I’d really rather that, than letting my works ossify in some glass cabinet somewhere.

As for the Chris Ofili show – it finishes tomorrow. A missed opportunity for a great, great artist.

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