The White Space

The opening of a new block of flats on my street was heralded with a series of posters depicting hip bobos wearing plastic bags on their feet. One, featuring a yuppie drinking white wine, had the word ‘cunt’ written on it in austere black marker pen. This was an addition by a member of the public, I assume, rather than a guerilla marketing ploy.

Needless to say, those posters have now been taken down, replaced by a series of photos by Vaughan Judge, an American artist who is also head of photography at the Glasgow School of Art. The series, which can be seen here, depicts callow students in vaguely mythological scenes. Aesthetically, they are sub-fashion mag fodder, neither as well-composed nor featuring as interesting models as those in Tank or Amelia’s (which I browsed in Borders earlier).

What mystifies me is why there are works of art on my road in the first place. The reflective plastic used to protect it from the rain makes it difficult to see the whole picture clearly. And doesn’t the noise of the traffic not distract from the work? I’m not saying that art should be confined to white walls, but I can understand why most curators might think it the easiest way for people to engage with the art.

A couple of years ago, Charles Saatchi railed against the white cubes used to display modern art, branding them “antiseptic”, out-of-date and “worryingly” old-fashioned and cliched. Karen Wright, the editor of Modern Painters agreed: “Museums are in danger of becoming cathedrals to art – joyless and reverential”. Neither of them wanted to take art out of the gallery, of course, but that is the next logical step.

The philosophy of the white space is based on the fallacy that the less noise there is, the more you’ll be able to focus on the object. Flock wallpaper and elaborate frames have been abandoned so that you can commune with the work. At Tate Modern, you can sit in the gloomy grey space of the Rothko room and “vibrate” (as Roger Fry described the aesthetic experience) with the emotions those dull daubs inspire. The modern cliche tells us that, as a visual experience, art affects one’s ganglions in abstract, irrational ways. Removing distractions means a purer experience, apparently (though if that were true, surely the first thing you’d ban would be all those bourgeois women working up an appetite with inane chatter).

As I say, it is a fallacy:- Art desperately needs context. One of the best things in the refurbished Kelvingrove is the Italian Renaissance room where a painting Boticelli is surrounded by illuminating contextual objects. There’s a display showing how egg tempera was a made, an earlier painting that was painted before the invention of perspective, and a suit of armour from the same period. None of these are strictly necessary but all of them add to the user experience. Art is a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an angel to look out. We all quickly find our own level, to expect neophytes to become cultured by osmosis is the height of arrogance.

The fewer filters there are between the art and the viewer, the less there is to think about. This doesn’t mean show loads of text explaining the work, but it does mean allowing it to breathe.

I’ve now seen Vaughan Judge’s photos at night (they are backlit) and they look stunning. The rest of my point remains, though.