In the context of fine art the viewer means nothing. If a writer or filmmaker does not please the cultural consumer his or her work will fail. The same is true for music, design, architecture and the performing arts. There is no such economic imperative for the fine artist who only needs to please the art institution—a closed system with its own economic engine in the form of collectors, auction houses and state funded museums. What the average viewer thinks about art is irrelevant.
Exhibitions such as Documenta 12, 2007, and the 5th Berlin Biennial, 2008, show the results of this isolation, which is a degeneration of contemporary art into self-referentiality, pretentiousness, and a total lack of concern for communicating with the public. Only the media of video and photography appear able to keep their heads above this mire. When we speak about “serious” arts—serious music, literature and theatre—we are speaking about media that still depend upon a middle-class consumer. Fine art does not, because most middle-class gallery visitors do not have the means necessary to spend thousands, or tens of thousands of pounds or dollars purchasing the kind of art they see in contemporary art musems.
More evidence for the dislocation of the gallery viewer from the art market lies in the fact we do not have to pay to enter into contemporary art museums, or if we do have to pay the fee is very small. We have a situation in which the taxpayer—the vast majority of whom have no interest in contemporary art—are supporting contemporary art and are despised for their generosity by fine artists.
This situation is purely due to tradition. Museums were originally conceived in the late 18th century as the means whereby to educate and edify the public (Bennett 1995). But from the perspective of the contemporary art museum this original concept was dislocated with the advent of modernity in the 20th century and demolished with the evolution of postmodernity in the second half of the 20th century. Art no longer edifies, in the words of the leading contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan:
It’s like spitting in the hand of someone who pays your salary. I’m not trying to be against museums or institutions. Maybe I’m just saying that we are all corrupted in a way; life itself is corrupted, and that’s the way we like it. I’m just trying to get a slice of the pie, like everyone else. (in Siegel 2004)
As the original rationale for taking money from taxpayers to support fine art has evaporated it would be instructive to reduce or remove public funding to contemporary art museums and place them in a situation in which they had to survive via payments made by gallery visitors. This may seem like an abhorrent suggestion, but it has an ethical objective: to give power to the viewer, in a manner akin to the other arts. We already have to pay a nominal fee—around £10 ($20)—to enter major touring exhibitions, but the begging boxes at the entrances of major art museums such as Tate Modern indicate that this is not enough.
If I had to pay even £25 ($50) to visit Tate Modern, which is probably not enough to sustain it, I would think carefully before doing so, and I am sure many other people would as well. I would want value for money and if I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t be coming back in a hurry. Such a policy would totally transform the attitude of the museum and fine artists. They would no longer be able to live in their ivory tower. The viewer would no longer be subjected to the self-indulgent, pretentious, and socially dislocated exhibitions such as Documenta 12 and (to a lesser extent) the 5th Berlin Biennial.
What would happen to the commercial gallery system? This is a good question, because although it appears self-sufficient and funded by the good graces of wealthy collectors this is not the whole story. I would suggest that the commercial gallery system is very much dependent upon the mythology of art that is promulgated by the government funded art museum system. It is this system that provides art with the aura that the commercial art gallery dealer then uses as a basis the selling his or her wares.
And is it not grotesque to suggest that the art museum descend from the heights of being perceived as a church (according to research carried out by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1960s) to being something more commercial? No it isn’t because we pay to consume literature, music, film and theatre. And making the general public pay for art when they want to see it—rather than through the taxes they pay—brings “fine” art into the real world, the world of late capitalism where it is already, actually, if we examine the art market. But currently the art market is the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. Wouldn’t it be healthy to expand this marketplace to include a much broader social demographic? Who knows, art might actually evolve in a manner in which it would benefit and flourish.
But the most beneficial outcome of making contemporary art museums pay for themselves would be that contemporary fine artists and curators would have to think about the viewer. The viewer would become powerful—and it is about time that happened
REFERENCE Siegel, K., Mattick, P. 2004. Money. London: Thames & Hudson.