22 October 2006

Art from the Ministry of Fun

left: Holler's 'Slide', right: Velazquez's 'Meninas'

An article by Rachel Campbell-Johnston in Wednesday's Times compares Carsten Holler's slide at Tate Modern with the Velazquez exhibition at the National. She writes that

"Velázquez ... can’t offer instant gratification. You have to take this show slowly, let the pictures explain the developing talent, feel a slow dawning reverence for a percipience so subtle that, only with time, does it infiltrate.

This is so far from that quick-fix fairground thrill which puts our culture on a slippery slope. The contemporary art scene has been a lot about sensationalism, and after the adrenalin rush things can seem a bit flat. Galleries — all competing to present the next big experience, to be more impressive, more blatant, more instantly entertaining — risk losing touch with something much more profound."

So, Velazquez requires taking slowly to appreciate properly, and can’t offer instant gratification. But isn’t this rather elitist, if not everyone has the capacity to feel “a slow dawning reverence”?

In a mediocracy, it’s regarded as more important that cultural output appeals (or fails to appeal) equally to all. That may mean appearing to provide instant gratification, though whether real gratification is involved is questionable. At least, there must be no hint that the product calls on intelligence, refinement or other bourgeois qualities. Holler's Slide is perfectly in tune with this philosophy.

Further to the mediocratic ethos in art galleries, and the fashion for encouraging "irreverence" towards high culture, Philip Hensher recently wrote in the Independent that museums have started to complain of a growing lack of "decorum and respect". It seems many visitors feel they have a right to treat works of art in any way they see fit. E.g. the Egyptian galleries in the British Museum, where people are clambering on ancient statues and running greasy hands over precious artefacts.

It is a conceit of many contemporary artists to encourage the "down wiv culcher" attitude - it doesn't do them any harm personally, only those who have to come after them.