On My Own Terms

Mark Rothko, at the Philips Gallery

Jonathan Jones, that no nonsense, speak your truth art critic for the Guardian, reported on his visit to the new Tanks interactive art space at the Tate Modern:

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett’s contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the “screening process”.

It’s probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

A certain class of art has moved “the art experience” closer to entertainment. I’m not against the easy pleasing of a confectionary offering—something light and fun can be a worthwhile distraction from the heavier parts of life—but at some point there is a need to advocate for the other end of the spectrum. Contemplative engagement with art rarely garners the same coverage as playfully theatrical events, events that are conceptually driven but often conceptually shallow.

There is room in our world for lots of types of expression. and I don’t think it is excessively curmudgeonly to ask for equal time.

Jones seems to agree:

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I’ve done my interactions.

Jones nails a nagging discomfort I have felt repeatedly. A set up like the one Jones describes IS patronizing. And it is that particular form of condescension that frequently turns me off when I visit similar interactive exhibits. Respect me as a viewer, please. The way a great painting respects me.

So yes, I’ll take that hour in front of a Rothko.

6 Replies to “On My Own Terms”

  1. Yes, I so agree. I’m trying to remember which show it was at the Guggenheim recently that had children trailing after you asking questions. I was headed to a show further up the ramp and was very annoyed. But then I was also annoyed at the nude figures in the Marina Abramovic show at MoMA; I felt manipulated and bludgeoned.

  2. I’ve been researching art grants lately, and I notice a couple of trends. To get funding, artists either need to have a good gimmick – some kind of clever attention getting trick – or claim to have some kind of quantifiable effect on the “community”.

    Just plain old skill and/or a unique perspective doesn’t seem to cut it any more. Not flashy enough, or something. Nowadays, they are expecting some kind of “interactive” circus act. The art itself suffers when even a skilled artist is expected to waste time and energy coming up with a PR-friendly gimmick; an untalented but very manipulative artist could game this system very easily (and has).

    I’m annoyed at any kind of female nudity. Especially when it’s packaged, as it almost always is, as a “celebration” of “beauty” and “sexuality” rather than as the appeasement of male eyeball rapists that it really is.

    1. Perfect word–gimmick. The gamification of art (and the gamification of so many aspects of our lives) is evidenced everywhere and is repellent to many of us.

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. I’m also fairly horrified by how quickly so many people race past the art they have ostensibly come to see. It is pretty counter-cultural now to spend an hour doing anything, let alone looking at a painting.

    1. We are not an introspective culture, and getting less so all the time. Almost subversive, which, historically, has been a position sought by artists…!

  4. yes, we’re becoming, or already have become, a quick-fix generation. we seem to be seeking the twitter equivalent in all aspects of life. to sit and ponder seems so old hat.

    “Art should be a contemplative, personal experience.”

    However, I bristle at the word ‘should’. For me, art has so much to offer that it ought not to ‘should’ anything. As long as the created art came from an authentic place within the artist, may it be what it is.

    enjoying my scroll through your thoughtful posts….

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