An excerpt from a paper on ‘Understanding Spectatorship and Navigation in Art Galleries and Museums’
Function, Form and Display
People don’t enter an art gallery to be educated, to gain knowledge or to learn anything. It primarily forms a means of ‘visual pleasure’ a way of exposing your mind to uncommon and abstract stimuli. Not abstract because of the nature of the art, but because paintings, art photographs and installations in themselves are ‘systems’ that are disparate from daily routine. The stimulus one receives from them is more for the purpose of subjecting oneself to an Alice in Wonderland kind of experience. Unlike a museum, where the kind of objects on display carries the weight of history, legacy, patriotism, heritage or cultural import, galleries don’t have to follow any such briefs.
Thus we come to the core of the issue – the functional difference between a museum and an art gallery. While fundamentally museums exist to educate and disseminate objects considered to hold cultural and social significance and collect and display such objects, art galleries don’t have any ‘moral’ underpinnings or obligations. While a museum like the Prince of Wales in Mumbai would never collect or display, say a nude painting, Bodhi Art Gallery, Mumbai, would be free to do so. A gallery’s sole aim is to exhibit the work of ‘a’ individual, solely on the basis of his or her ‘commercial’ viability, and no other reason. Bodhi is under no obligation to explain the works it puts up – it’s all open to interpretation. Captions are placed only if the artist deems it fit, otherwise, ‘untitled’ more than serves its purpose. Other than allowing the visitor to understand the growth of an artist, if any, and the works done by an artist in a particular period, dates don’t serve any inherent historic purpose.
Another aspect of a gallery is the way in which objects for display are ‘grouped’ or ‘ungrouped’. There needn’t be any coherent theme or similarity of subject painted or depicted in a work of art where display in a gallery is concerned. An artist could have painted or photographed four pictures of flowers, four abstractions of a human body and four depictions of colour abstractions, but they could all be displayed together under the same theme. Here, it’s easier to invent an abstract category which might not have any connection at all to the works.
Since objects aren’t placed in any particular sequence, neither are there sections or many galleries to navigate, visitors can ‘choose’ where to start from. Also, since none of the art works are glassed in, or placed within high-tech security, etc, as in The Prince of Wales Museum, visitors are given the space and choice to decide which art work they like, appreciate and want to gaze at, and aren’t being bombarded with subtle hints of what is precious and deserves historical mention and what doesn’t. All works of art are displayed in a standardised format.
Notice how the ceiling lights do away the need to provide individual spotlights for each art work
So, do we view art galleries as mere spaces of business? Not at all! Such a cynical attitude is corrosive to the nature of art. What would happen to all those artists who need what else but SPACE to display their creations? We certainly don’t have a system in place where art college graduates are flooded with visitors and art connoisseurs who want to view their work. It’s left to galleries across the city to pick up these works, display them artfully and induce visitors into paying them a visit and then, buying it.
Here, we are pre-supposing that questions like what is art, how do you judge it, does it serve a role, etc, have already been considered and answered, and the role and function that art galleries serve by extension, is thus understood then. Because, if museums house objects merely on the point that they have historical significance, then by extension, works of art created in 2007 will also be of historic import, five decades hence.
… “Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly imposters…We have infected the pictures in museums with all our stupidities, all our mistakes, all our poverty of spirit. We have turned them into petty and ridiculous things.” – Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish artist. “Conversation avec Picasso,” in Cahiers d’Art, Vol 10, no. 10 (Paris, 1935; translated by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, 1946).
It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to point out that a majority of people who visit museums come out slack jawed with awe, especially kids, for whom the museum space and its exhibits are windows to a bygone world. Hordes of visitors navigate the monumental space that is the hallmark of any well-established museum and breeze their way through thousands of exhibits. But even Holmes won’t hesitate in pointing out that what you see is certainly not what you get. History is a dish best served by the triumphant – the victors of wars and the survivors of plagues. So, what is so painstakingly reproduced and represented in well-lit, polished glass cabinets is at best a selective reconstruction of what was.
The common man takes for granted the authenticity of the material culture placed within an institutionalized set up – context be damned. Add to this, the prejudice and biases and world views of the curator herself, and you end up having a distorted history on display. Point noted Watson?
Society might have metamorphed from the referential window of structuralism, post structuralism and on to deconstruction, but the museum visitor remains the same. Unless you are a post-modern professor of museum studies or art history, you will enter a museum as a space that will provide you entertainment, a bit of education and a place to relax with the entire family. A commonly observed behaviour among visitors in a museum is the tendency to ‘group’ together or ‘herd mentality’ as I call it. Families move together viewing each object collectively, with the wife always on the periphery.
At best, what a museum can hope for in its visitors, is the surfacing of an inherent aesthetic gene that I believe is inherent in every individual – class, education, geographical and cultural background no bar. Curators and museum educators should focus on familiarising visitors with objects on display and their cultural contexts, and allow visitors to make up their minds about its sociological import. As far as art galleries are concerned, they don’t even have to think of such issues. However, rampant commercialisation and favouritism are the plagues of the art world. Who gets seen, who gets sold and which artist’s legacy survives is all determined by the gallery with the biggest budget and the right connections with the media and the social circuit.
Another issue that I have not explored in this review is that of gender representation. Do we ever stop and think about the author of artifacts displayed in a museum in terms of gender? If most of the historical objects that have survived the onslaught of time have been created by male artists and their atelier, how do we find evidences of women artists? Where is their work represented? Do museums ever make a conscious effort to display artifacts created by women? What are the subjects of such work? Are the subjects gendered in nature? Moreover, we also need to understand how the female gender looks at an artifact, when allowed the freedom of the gaze.
As for an art gallery, – do the works exhibited show any kind of gender parity or partiality? Are they a-gendered because of a certain post-modernist tendency to view art works as points of individuality and not gender?
Imagine if a cartoon of Britney Spears is the only thing that survives from the vast repertoire of comic strips, hundred years hence. Do you think that people in 2100 would see that comic strip in a gallery of an American museum and consider Spears as the single most influential pop icon of the 21st century, or even of the modern era?
Consider what Eilean Hooper-Greenhill has to say: “It is becoming clear that museum curators have worked from within their own world views and have assumed that visitors share the values, the assumptions, and the intellectual pre-occupations that have guided not only the choice and presentation of exhibitions, but also, fundamentally, the selection and acquisition of objects.”
As the opportunities and demand for exhibitions have increased, so too has the need for a broader understanding of where exhibition ideas come from, how exhibitions are developed, what the choices are with regards to approach, who makes these choices, what exhibitions cost and what benefits can reasonably be expected from exhibitions in terms of engaging the public, creating new knowledge and the impact on museum finances. How does exhibition making keep pace with the escalation both of discipline-based research and public expectations for involvement, information, entertainment and accountability?
For the very same reasons, we need to ‘view’ museum exhibitions with a bit of objectivity. These objects are chosen for display by curators, who come with their own idiosyncrasies, prejudices and worldview and therefore, might not be able to provide all visitors with the one Truth. In such a context, I am left confused as to whether art galleries can be compared objectively and point to point to a museum on the same parameters.
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