Monday, August 24, 2009

Art Attack

So, yeah. I went to see the Dali exhibition in Melbourne, and it pissed me off.

Not Dali, or his works. Not even the crowds, nope. It's great to see people taking interest in our artistic and cultural heritage. What did piss me off: the snaking great line of head-phone zombies. Punters who ponied up a bunch of extra bucks so they could get a recorded talk-through to play back as they checked out the Art.

Why did it piss me off? Well, first because the numbnuts in their headphones are functionally deaf. They don't hear you behind them, and they seem to lose touch with their surroundings. They are indeed not unlike stumbling, fumbling zombies, as likely to stand on your foot or drive an elbow into your midriff as they are to actually improve their brainzzz.

Secondly, the shuffling, stop-start gait pissed me off too. You could see the long line of 'em, dutifully wending their way from picture to painting, pausing at each post long enough to absorb the Holy Words through their headphones, and then lumbering off to the next stop. Can't stay here too long... quick, the voice-over has run out, time to move along!

You get a couple-hundred people behaving that way, and you have one great, big, multi-legged, eerie organism, organized by a single nervous system transmitting orders through the black organs on top of each head. Impotent, irritating, idiotic Cybermen of the Arts.

Very cordially: fuck you, Art-Cybermen. I had to duck and dodge and weave to avoid you idiots all morning. And every time I found something I wanted to see, a cluster of you would detach, like bloated ticks dropping off a host animal, and lumber painfully across my viewpoint to stand gaping, slack-jawed, while your sinister black mind-control devices told you what to think, and for how long.

Oh, but don't I think that the talky walk-through provides an extra dimension, and enhances the experience?

Two words: fuck, no.

Art, folks, is not about being told who and how and where. Art is by definition an intensely, ultimately personal experience. Take the famous Lascaux cave paintings, if you will: gorgeously rendered, intensely alive depictions of beasts and creatures and times long since gone. Picasso, seeing them is famously supposed to have said "We have learned nothing!" And do you suppose there was a fucking headset strapped on his lugholes at the time?

Art, literature, music: they do not happen in a vacuum. At first, they are an act of creation - but ever after, they become acts of re-creation, as each audience, each viewer experiences for themselves what the artist created. Literally: the sound, the colours, the words and ideas are re-created by the senses -- by your senses -- into the private space of your mind, becoming something that nobody else will ever fully understand or experience.

Dali once destroyed his own work -- a window display in Bonwit Teller in New York which had been altered without his consent. Seeing the changes the staff had made, he very publically stormed his way in, made a disaster zone of the window, then smashed his way out onto the street through the glass pane in front of a stunned audience. I imagine he'd be pleased to see people still taking an interest in his work today. But I strongly suspect that if he saw a line of Art Cybermen moving like a robotic conveyor past his paintings, he'd probably go straight for the fire axe.

You want to know more about the art, or the literature, or the music you're taking in? Fine, go and learn. But for fuck's sake, the first thing you have to do is actually take in the experience. What is the fucking point of looking at some of the most interesting, controversial, and often highly detailed paintings in the modern Western canon if you're going to cop an earful of some curator's opinions at the same time? You're wasting your time -- and while you stagger around like a poorly connected marionette, you're annoying the shit out of everybody else, too.

One of the best moments I ever had in a museum: I found myself in a large room in the New York Museum of Art. The room was full of Renaissance works, but there was practically nobody else in there. I didn't know much about Renaissance art at the time. (Still don't, as far as I'm concerned.) So I stood in the centre of the room and just... looked. From one picture to another. And then back. From different angles, higher and lower, side to side. I just stood there, and let the artists throw their visions at me, and it was fucking great.

After maybe ten, fifteen minutes, I'd formed vague opinions based on my own feelings and responses. I then went around the room read the labels and the info on each painting. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that every single picture which had really moved me -- hit some kind of deep emotional button, provoked a response of interest and wonder and curiosity -- was attached to a name like Tintoretto or Caravaggio. And all the paintings which got a "meh" were by people I'd never actually heard of. Bear in mind I'd never seen the paintings before. Probably I'd passed a few over as reproductions in books, but I'd never taken notice.

I was absolutely stunned by that exerience. It made me think for the first time that maybe, just maybe, there was something to this idea that some artists were "great".

Since then, I've repeated the exercise a few times, and learned a lot more about art history in the process. But most of all, I've learned to trust my own feelings and responses. Great art provokes. That's what it's designed to do, dammit. To provoke you, however, it has to reach you. And if your ears are blocked by the oh-so-informative murmurings of some wonderfully educated Art Guru, or if you're busy reading the programme and Beethoven's bio while the Ninth thunders past you in all its glory, or if you're checking out Cliffs Notes in the middle of Hamlet just to be sure that the version on stage in front of you is abridged...

... you are missing the fucking point. And you might as well piss off, and get out of the way of people who are there to appreciate everything you're ignoring.

If you really have to know it all, then do the reading before you arrive. Or if the experience of that Art, that literature, that music, that play provokes curiosity and wonder in you, go out afterwards and do some reading and research. Hell - just buy the inevitable book from the Museum gift shop. It will be carefully reasearched, well-written, and quite informative. And yes, you're quite right: learning about the history of it all does actually add a dimension, and it's well worth doing.

But before you do that, go in with open eyes and ears, and just experience it. That's why it was created in the first place. Take those little black headphones and stick 'em where the sun doesn't shine. Dali will thank you for it.


  1. Dead right. It's such a shame people don't trust themselves to experience their own response.

  2. Couldn't agree more and most eloquently put.

    I bet the first gallery that ever provided headphones did is as a way of not having to pay those folk that use to run a tour of the gallery and speak to the art and speak to the crowd and answer their questions.

    I also bet it was a person from the marketing or personnel department of the gallery that proposed these head phones and not some one from the curators or anyone who had anything to do with the actual art.

    They looked at the art as just Product, and they shall burn in hell just as surely as child molesters and those who talk in the theatre.

  3. Amen brother. So many sheep want to be told what to think.


  4. That was my day in the Louvre. the tourist bus vampires would run in check out the Venus with no arms, the winged victory with no head and the famous painting of that lisa chick with no way of getting close enough to see it. Funny thing about that museum is if you look up you see beautiful gilded ceilings and frescos because it is in a palace. 9 hours in that place. I saw things that reminded me that humans can also do nice things. I stood less than a foot away from a statue that was sculpted 5000 years ago. a perfect replica of the human form. The vampires missed that because it wasn't one of the famous 3.

  5. I took my daughter around an art gallery, in a quiet time, no one telling us what to think or feel, we loved it. Such a shame to waste a good exhibition like that.

  6. When a blockbuster like that ios on the permanent collection galleries are often almost empty - and just a short stroll away at the NGV, which does have a pretty bloody good collection...

  7. Indeed it does, GB. And if I'd had more time, that's exactly what I would have done. But I knew Dali had been open for a while already. I didn't think the crowds would still be so thick.

  8. Flinty - I LIKE the masterpieces, but I always fall in love with one of the pieces that just scrapes it in :)

  9. It's sad but unsurprising. Why bother doing any thinking when someone smarter than you can invent dinner party conversation for you to take home with? Your Art Cybermen aren't there to see the art, they're there to be able to tell people they've seen it. Also U's experience speaks to tourist stamp-collecting of the most miserable order.

  10. I've done the headphone thing once in a smaller museum in New York. I was intensely irritated with the voice which said, in a vibratingly snide and condescending tone, that a painting of a plump, smiling, beflowered woman was "remarkably honest", and then moved on. I was so defensive of the picture, and the sitter - it was a wonderful portrait of a lovely, happy human and my favourite in the gallery.