Please do touch the works of art

From toddlers' expressionism to giant slides at the Tate Modern: 'interactive art' is turning galleries into mindless playgrounds.

Anna Travis

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Topics Culture

Sleepovers, hand printing, giant slides, touch-and-play light boxes… No, this is not a list of playful activities available for kids to experience at theme parks or children’s parties and playgrounds: it is a list of things you can now do in some of Britain’s most prestigious art galleries.

Infant art is in. ‘Art works’ produced by children are widely celebrated, and art institutions work hard to attract and involve young people. At the same time, there is a new obsession with interactivity in adult art, which is fast replacing the past emphasis on allowing the authority of an artwork to speak for itself. Where Victorian exhibition visitors were hushed into awed silence, today’s curators try to drag us into the museums by promising a rough-and-tumble romp, where we can engage loudly with nothing but our apparently immature selves.

The Tate Modern in London has spearheaded the new art-as-play ethos. Its Turbine Hall is an industrial powerhouse of toddler expressionism. It recently featured Little Hands, Big Flowers, created at the behest of the UK government’s Sure Start scheme which promotes learning opportunities for youngsters in England. Little Hands was a patchwork of fifteen canvasses, made up of the handprints of children, carers and parents from nurseries across Britain. UK children’s minister Beverly Hughes was impressed by the work’s celebration of ‘all that is great about the early years, childcare and child carers’ (1).

Earlier this summer, Tate Modern hosted a sleepover party in the Turbine Hall in an attempt to increase its youth appeal. The kids kipped in tents of their own design, inspired by the grown-up works on display in the gallery. Another Tate campaign, Premiership Kickz, used football to try to attract disadvantaged youngsters to the museum.

Tate Modern is not alone in encouraging playful art. At the Jubilee Library in Brighton, southern England, the Art for Babies show honoured toddlers with the status of culture vultures. The exhibition encouraged very young children to take an interactive crawl around a variety of light boxes and sculptures, which were displayed specifically for their critical appraisal.

The creative great and the good don’t just want more kids in the cultural halls; they want them to rewrite the artistic future in their image. The Tate Modern’s director, Nicolas Serota, is getting youngsters to craft a creative manifesto for Britain in the twenty-first century. In the rhetoric of inclusivity, he declared that ‘there is a great deal more interest not only in contemporary and modern art, but in being more actively-involved participants instead of being passive learners’. Serota also promised that ‘in the future we are going to act as a platform and as a publisher of others’ ideas as well as our own. We are going to bring an increased diversity to our thinking.’ (1)

The irony is that it’s the very interactivity of the new art, and its lack of room for silent contemplation and engaged critical thinking, that creates passive audiences. In engaging us physically, interactive art makes us intellectually passive. As audiences are pushed down Carsten Höller’s giant slide to get in touch with their younger selves, and artists are made to jump through inclusivity-hoops in their applications for financial grants, it seems clear that the art world has turned to infantilisation for inspiration. It strikes me that this enforced variety and interactivity is not really about enriching the arts; rather it seems to reflect a crisis of curators’ nerve. Unsure about what constitutes great or groundbreaking art, they throw their galleries open to playfulness and user-friendly experimentation.

Often, curators will defend interactive exhibits and other modern art on the grounds that they engage visitors on an emotional level. But the kind of emotional connection created by a big slide or a self-made tent is nothing like the complex emotions that can be triggered as you search for the sublime in a masterful work of Renaissance art, for example. The new childish interactivity is not a conversation initiated by our intellectual faculties; it simply beckons us to feel small, as we wander through works such as Louise Bourgeois’ giant metal spiders, exhibited at the Tate Modern a few years ago. Or it aims to make us feel good: consider Olafur Eliasson’s giant sun, ‘The Weather Project’, which also appeared at the Tate Modern. Or, of course, we’re asked simply to feel someone else’s pain – as we were with Tracey Emin’s various confessionals. We’re expected to have kneejerk feelings rather than to think profound thoughts.

The most striking example of infantilising art was Carsten Höller’s ‘architectural joke’, which turned the Turbine Hall into a playground. In this popular 2006 exhibition, ‘Test Site’, visitors breathlessly reported their exhilaration after scuffing their smart clothes by whizzing down a giant tubular slide.

The Hayward Gallery, also in London, has hopped into the interactivity buggy, too. In 2003, it launched an art-as-social-inclusion project, titled Waterloo Sunset. It was advertised as a drop-in centre for children and old people, providing a space where they could view cartoons and touch-sensitive monitors, or indulge in other forms of ‘social interaction, learning and fun’. Even the Hayward’s current Anthony Gormley show, Blind Light, features a colossal steel structure which, as becomes gradually apparent to the visitor, is shaped like a human curled into the fetal position. Art methods, too, seem to have become infantilised: consider Chris Ofili’s school art sessions of glitter and crude collage; Banksy’s teen rebel spray paintings; Tracey Emin’s toilet-wall graffiti.

According to the description of the Blind Light exhibition, ‘Inside, you can lose yourself in light and vapour, with visibility down to as little as two feet’. When I attended it I saw mammoth queues of adults and children weaving around this dry-ice box, eagerly anticipating their fairground ride through the magical mist. They emerged from the transparent cube breathlessly mopping their damp foreheads, exclaiming ‘that was fun!’ The preoccupation with transforming art into an interactive, childlike experience could be read as a wonderful postmodern attempt to make the viewer the locus of meaning – or it could be seen as a lazy, banal retreat from the act of creating sense and meaning as an artist.

The instrumental approach to art – which upholds art as a tool for social inclusion, therapeutic intervention and so on – deadens subject matter and interpretive experience. We are no longer subjects to be edified by the suggestion of universal beauty or truth; instead we’re childish participants who must be babysat or taught a faddish lesson. Instrumental art also gives the next wave of art an utterly predictable character. What will come next? Green art, of course. The biggest challenge for artists, writes Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian, is the environment: ‘There is growing pressure on artists to use their new-found authority and audiences – prized assets not available to politicians – to increase awareness of our environmental emergency.’ (3) The Royal Society of Arts recently launched a big programme on the arts and ecology.

Art has been hijacked for crude ideological ends, or transformed into a feelgood experience. It seems that the role of culture is no longer to civilise or create a public, imaginative territory in which to work out issues of morality and truth, but rather to make us feel warm and happy on our individuated playmats.

Previously on spiked

Tiffany Jenkins addressed the shortcomings of art-as-spectacle. Karl Sharro said that Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron made a mess of the Tate Modern extension. Austin Williams saw a Turbine Hall exhibition which reduced cities to a statistical sprawl. Bill Durodié witnessed a cultural revolution at Tate Liverpool. Nathalie Rothschild saw Tate Britain’s first major photography show. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

(1) Children’s handprints set record, BBC News, 6 June, 2006

(2) Tate Modern hosts sleepover party, BBC New, 29 May 2007

(3) Artists are now taking the lead politicians have failed to give, Madeleine Bunting, Guardian, May 21 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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