This notion occurred to me suddenly the other day as I was looking at my TV-less living room. Setting up a room with a TV is easy – you stick the box where a window won’t wash out the screen, and place chairs, couch and coffee table around it.
Then I thought about Target stores and retail chains like them who seriously, hard-core study the shit out of how best to maximize space and opportunity centered around the movement and product focus of shoppers. This experience is centered around the desire and ambitions of the shopper – obstacles and distractions are minimized.
In fact, almost all of our shared public experience is based on us, as individuals, and we have come to expect it. Other obvious examples of our public space expectations can be found in movie theatres where every step is a measured science; or the airport – where people are managed very closely, as we all know; casinos are carefully set up to avoid being able to see out a window, as our attention is drawn to the games and lights. Highways are centered around your individual need to drive and even schools are built specifically to manage your studies, your leisure time and every other facet of your behaviour in that space. The point is, almost everything in our society is a science of space that centres around you, most often for entertainment, shopping or work. This is the normal we subconsciously register to evaluate whether a space, i.e. a company or organization, is worthy of our participation in it.
Except for many contemporary art galleries that is, as they are not typically spaces designed for entertainment and the visitor is *not* the most important presence in the room.
I think that explains a lot about the views most people have about contemporary art practice.
You see, most people avoid most galleries like the plague. Many times I have heard about people not “knowing enough about art” or “feeling stupid” by visiting a gallery. They feel awkward, even exposed as their footsteps echo faintly in a white cube with some inexplicable object that continues to mystify long after the befuddled visitor in question has left. This fight-or-flight feeling they have is a result not being in a space designed around “the consumer experience” people are used to – this is a space designed around something else and not them. Simply put, they are not the most important thing in the room, and most people instinctively hate this because it goes against everything they have been raised and taught to expect. They are *entitled* to be entertained, and anything else in a stage like context that fails to effortlessly amuse like the punch-line of a a knock-knock joke is a failure of the creator.
You and I realize of course this basic kind of uncomfortableness and confrontation through contemplation is a rare and precious gift preserved from the history of art and museums (though mainly the ones that do not contain dinosaur bones or kid edutainment zones). Most people, unfortunately, cannot separate entertainment from art. They are very, very different things but this line has also blurred, as evidenced by the behaviour of large museums and galleries.
Places like the Art Gallery of Ontario are about entertainment more than the kind of smaller, public art spaces I am talking about. “block buster” shows such as King Tut, Picasso and other very recognizable household names bring out the masses that would not set foot in anything smaller, less advertised or with any less unpredictability (i.e. newer) of what they are going to see. Most people will prefer to pay the $17 to get in, after being in a line-up and coat-check and then jostle shoulder to shoulder to see a work for 8 seconds – the man objective int his kind of situation is to see all the rooms before you leave so you get good value for the price of admission.
This process is entertainment and is safe because it is familiar. I am convinced an art experience for most people involves the validation of a crowd and an admission charge because this puts the individual back into a familiar process that centres around them, and is validated by a large community of regular, middle-class folk just like you who are also paying money and lining up. To me, this explains the appeal of Art Crawls, Nuit Blanche and art-in-the-park type of events – there is a safety in numbers and participating artists often put great effort into performances and displays that do entertain briefly as clutches of gawking families shuffle by.
Contrast this with a smaller independent or public gallery that has no admission charge and is mostly empty should somebody visit it. Maybe this is not good art because you don’t recognize it, so you have no pre-conceived notions to understand it immediately. Imagine it’s just you and a stranger in a room with a work of art and the stranger knows you are stupid, unsophisticated and always will be because of the wrong way you are standing or looking at things because there is no obvious consumer process to engage in. If you paid, then you can act anyway you want because the customer is always right.
Also, incredibly, many many people don’t know that almost no gallery actually charges admission – a symptom of the conditioning of big entertainment in our society.
The woes of the public art world would be solved if most people went to their local gallery once every couple of months. Unfortunately people have an assumption that good art, like entertainment, is a window into another world. They simply do not understand the dynamics of looking into art that is a mirror, and especially if they are not front and centre in the reflection.