The short-sightedness of spectacle

If art takes people's breath away, is that enough?

Tiffany Jenkins

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Topics Politics

Players in the New Labour cultural game assert that they cannot be philistines, because they do believe that ‘excellence matters’ – it is just that everything is excellent. Or they silence their critics with sentiment – art is valuable, they claim, because it shocks or moves people, it makes them feel.

The concentration on the value of reaction to, and the emotional impact of, works of art is the hot favourite in the appreciation scam. New Labour and its cultural cronies run around various venues (as varied as possible, so as not to discriminate) gushing about how culture makes them feel. As former culture minister Chris Smith raved on the anniversary of the opening of Tate Modern, paraphrasing the 1980s pop song, ‘There are very few buildings which take your breath away as you walk through the door – this is one of them’.

All New Labour’s recent descriptions of art and architecture value a dramatic impact, one that shocks, stirs and shakes. The wow factor is de rigeur. ‘The Tate is awesome’, said Charles Landry of Comedia, at a recent debate on participation and culture at the Soho theatre. The Juan Muñoz sculpture in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall is ‘extraordinary’, said new culture minister Tessa Jowell, learning her lines fast. To be overwhelmed, in awe of or dazzled are the responses currently favoured by the new elite.

By valuing reaction above all else, the viewer is left hanging, disoriented, with his chin on the floor. All this hyperbole – to be made breathless, to be struck dumb, to gawp, to be amazed, to be bowled over – is a shoddy disguise for incomprehension, now posing as appreciation. No idea has been communicated and no sense has been created, understood and shared. No explanation is demanded of those discussing the work.

Concentrating on the impassioned reaction is convenient for those trying to prove they can understand the artistic things in life. This way they don’t have to explain, even decide, what is good – they merely have to indicate that they feel the power of art to move us. Their opinion isn’t wrong or right, as it is all just personal gut stuff. They can be ardent and swoon for effect. You cannot disagree or discuss because it is just the way they feel.

It is not only the political elite that overhypes the impact of artistic reaction. The artistic elite, too, now justifies art as spectacular provocation.

In New York City, galleries are growing. The way to get a reaction, it seems, is to large it. The new Solomon R Guggenheim Museum will be twice as big as the one in Bilbao and 10 times the size of the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building. Also in Manhattan, the Dia Center for the Arts plans to open a 292,000 square foot building. And the Museum of Modern Arts’ expansion plans will include a 100-by-200 foot gallery planned for the display of giant scale works.

Installations are swelling so as to disturb. Whether it is Louise Bourgeois, or Juan Muñoz, melodrama matters because it is unsettling.

But the rush to make space and art large for dramatic effect carries the danger that the essentials to good work, besides what is most obvious about it, are neglected. One of my all-time favourite pieces is Fulcrum by Richard Serra, in Liverpool Street station. In part, this is because his work does tower precariously and threateningly over the viewer. But there is much more to it; the texture in the ripples of rust, the variations in colour, the overall triangular shape, the solidity of the iron and sheer poise. The size is a part of the work, but not the be all and end all.

In a couple of years we will be weary of big installations and cavernous spaces, as the art that fills them strips down to simple, obvious tactics that are easily replicable, stirring in the short term, but ultimately derivative and banal. We can be amazed and left breathless only a few times. The shelf-life of shock is short.

The pressure upon art to be provocative is unimaginative. The drive to be new and different, to move beyond the mould, has resulted in work that is predictable – to go against the grain is the grain. To question, to provoke and challenge – to be on the ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘move the boundaries’, has been the tradition for decades. But if all art is apparently cutting-edge and questioning, surely, none is.

With this kind of rhetoric, the cultural elite can justify itself and its art as radical (because it is new), without having to discuss the whys, hows and what ifs. It is assumed that, as long as people are reacting (for whatever reason), they must understand and appreciate culture. But at best the demand that art jolts is tedious. At worst, prioritising the dramatic reaction as the desired consequence of the work is manipulative. I don’t want to be pushed around and treated as a passive emotional reactor.

The cultural elite widens its eyes and opens its heart to art, because it uses and abuses art for its own social agenda. The emphasis on people’s emotional reaction to art, after all, does not just help the elite to avoid criticism. The priority objective of museums, galleries, libraries and archives is, by DCMS dictate, to ‘socially include’ people – to make them feel better about life and their lot, by raising self-esteem or regenerating the community. Put together the focus on reaction and the need for culture to make people feel socially included and confident, and we could have a cultural agenda that dictates, not just what art should be about, but precisely what emotions it should provoke in its audience.

Museums are already told that they are supposed to make us feel part of society. What is the next stage in a designated emotional outcome? To push the public to feel excited about education, happy about hospitals, or joyful about our jobs?

I don’t want to be encouraged by policymakers in Whitehall to feel better about myself by looking at the art they want me to look at. Culture will be destroyed by these prescriptive, unreasonable demands. Instead, I would like to suggest a cure.

Halt the dynamic pushing culture to stimulate our emotions as a functional therapeutic device. Divorce politicians from the art they instrumentally exploit, and make them spend some quality time on social issues. This way they would not have to pretend to be arty – and they might actually solve some problems.

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director at the Institute of Ideas

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