Where do we formally find works of art or design? They may be found, primarily, in a Temple of Culture or a White Cube
A temple of culture will usually emulate a classical facade and the work displayed in it will traditionally have been made up to the beginning of the modernist period, although this is not always the case (consider the Tate Britain, for example). Generally the work displayed here is traditionally known as work of a master of art, or particularly famous artists.
A white cube, on the other hand, leaves the audience to make their own decisions about the pieces on display and the audience is likely to need high cultural capital to access it. Most work found in the temple of culture would include written info about the piece and the artist, so a lower level of cultural capital is needed; you are there to learn about what you are seeing. The original ethos of the temple of culture was to educate people that visited them, learning without interaction, presuming that this would educate those with low cultural capital.
Whether a gallery is defined as a white cube, or a temple of culture is mostly to do with the aesthetic. For example, The Louvre is a temple of culture, with some rebranding. The Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, but it sits on a blank white wall, within a glass case.
The white cube is a high modernist construction. Brian O’doherty wrote about ‘inside the white cube’ in the 1970s, and coined the phrase, talking about the ideology of the gallery space. The ideology of the gallery space is the belief system that we often adhere to when visiting a gallery: large spaces, peace and quiet, people nodding along to the paintings as they view them.
There are, of course, other places that are used as galleries, such as the catwalk being used to view fashion collections, as a space for display. This is more so in the cases of some designers than others, for example, consider the theatricality of a Chanel show in the Grand Palais, Paris. Vivienne Westwood is a good example of a postmodern practitioner in fashion.
Public spaces are also often used for displaying work e.g. Banksy or Anna Bariball, of which the latter has used posters in advertising space to show work in the underground. Bariball’s work easily fits in with the third stage of modernism, removing the aesthetic.
Mark Quinn’s piece of a flower outside the Tate, shows that work doesn’t only have to be shown inside the gallery and comments on the relationship between man and nature, and nature and insects.
We also have reproductions; prints on t-shirts, for example. We have briefly spoken before about Walter Benjamin’s notion of Aura, which he claims is gradually lost depending on the number of reproductions of a piece. Many galleries have websites, which give you a virtual tour of the gallery, so there is no need to even visit. Baudrillard talked of us seeing the world through screens – is this what is happening in this instance?
So, in light of the mention of Benjamin’s aura, I’ll now briefly take you through the three theories we have considered before, from Malraux, Benjamin, and Marinetti, before using them together to further understand what they’re going on about:
Malraux’ ‘museum without walls’ (1947)
This isn’t about work simply in public spaces, as is often misunderstood, but it is about reproduction. You don’t have to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa; you can look online, on a t-shirt, on a mug, wherever the image has been reproduced. These objects are disseminated and are accessible to us all through reproductions. He says that works of art and design go through a process of metamorphosis, starting in a gallery or museum, before being continually reproduced.
Photographic reproduction is the means by which the imaginary museum occurs. As well as being a discipline it its own right, it is also part of other artistic processes, mostly playing a part in reproduction. For example, unless you visit a sculpture in person, you will only see it if it has been reproduced using photography. It spreads the word by reproducing the image of the original piece. In terms of consumption, a perk of this readily available reproduction is that the image can be sold over and over again.
Malraux was interested in bringing art to the masses. He set up cultural centres that were full of art and design objects in order to do so. How is this problematic?
Bordieu talks about cultural capital; Malraux expects this of people.
Walter Benjamin’s notion of the Aura on an art object (1936)
The aura of an object of art is something that exists often when there is only one object produced. When talking about the aura of photography, it can be said that there is very little aura because the images are so often reproduced, according to Benjamin. Baudrillard’s theory in ‘Screened out’ (1997) relates to the lack of aura in objects because of reproduction and the fact that we often see art works on screens, repeatedly, rather than as one-off pieces in a gallery. The aura is destroyed as the item is more and more reproduced.
A supporter of Benjamin’s theories would physically go to see the painting, sculpture or other work of art as they wouldn’t feel they had truly seen it (or felt it’s aura) unless they had actually seen it and they certainly would not count viewing it online as real.
You could argue that the aura is not lost when there is a reproduction, as Benjamin thinks, but instead that the aura is created though this constant reproduction.
Marinetti – ‘Museums are cemeteries’ in the futurist manifesto 1909
The Futurists were all about looking forward, many of them were based in Italy, predominately as painters and sculptors with the idea to not reproduce anything that has been made before, only looking forward. This was only an ideology, not an art movement, but it was a way for many, including poets, to look into things to come. Much of the work includes transport as a way of depicting motion and moving forward. A contradiction in their work is that they still use the traditional tools, such as paint, which doesn’t seem particularly Futurist. I would expect a lot of tin foil and colanders in their work.
Marinetti believed that not only were the artists that exhibited their work in these galleries dead, but also that the work is dead and artists need to move forward. Once a piece of art is made and displayed, it dies, along with the maker.
Bringing the theories together
The three theories mentioned above are not the ultimate word on where art is truly found, there are many other opinions; you may even have theories yourself. For example, Picasso said ‘all museums are lies’. Museums and galleries promoted the metanarrative; they claim there is only one perspective: art lives in a temple of culture. Postmodernism doesn’t agree with this metanarrative at all. These museums require a large amount of buy in from viewers as they visit (and often pay) and are expected to believe everything that is shown is the truth.
The truth of an object, however, is changed for many reasons including the place it is exhibited, down to something as seemingly insignificant as cropping an image to be used in magazines, for example.
The work of art in its original setting, to the work of art in the gallery, to the work of art mass distributed via photographic representation, is an example of the metamorphosis of an art object. I keep using the Mona Lisa as a reference point but, it was originally just a canvas in the studio of some guy who could paint good; it’s metamorphosis is greatly removed from the blank canvas it once was.
The museum without walls is the latest stage in a process of metamorphosis begun by the museum. This is a form of decontextualising.
So, let’s think about something other the Mona Lisa for a minute: the Masaccio altarpiece pictured here.
If this image were to be placed in a white cube gallery, it would be decontextualised. Contexts change all the time and Malraux’ theory shows that each stage of metamorphosis further decontextualises the object. An altarpiece would obviously usually be in a church. This piece has been decontextualised from the church, then recontextualised into a gallery and wherever else it might be found as reproduction.
If we say that the gallery decontextualises the art object, it means it takes the object out of a context it would usually be in. This artwork would usually be found more fittingly in the context of a temple of culture.
Malraux seems to love the fact that everything is homogenised by the museum without walls. He thinks it is a positive step. Never mind what he thinks, would the original creator think their work being part of homogenisation was good or bad? Their work has been taken out of the original place it was required, or made for. This particular object has not been completely reframed, but this is an option that could happen in the case of triptychs or diptychs, for example. The original piece may be taken apart and spread around the country as different exhibitions. Some galleries would try to make the experience of viewing these paintings, for example, in their original context by lighting in the right way e.g. as if a stained glass window is shining on it and placing it in a large, cavernous space that may replicate the sense of a church.
So what do you think decontextualisation means for other types of work, such as photography? For example, we have a photograph that can be taken to many different places for exhibition, where the original context of the image is unknown. Is the work the image, the photograph, or the subject of the image? If the subject is the work, it has already been decontextualised by now being presented as a photograph. Malraux says that photography starts the process of metamorphosis. If the act of making the photograph was seen as a live act, then any type of recording of the act afterwards, or during, is the start of metamorphosis, the start of decontextualisation.