Modern and contemporary art is often aesthetically dependent on gallery spaces; the gallery or museum architecturally and aesthetically frames the work art. Despite the emergence of site-specific works, many works of contemporary art depend on the art gallery setting to give them meaning even existence. Modern art was also dependent on gallery spaces; it was the modern world that created the art gallery, the art museum and the contemporary art museum. The mode of exhibiting art in white walled cubes may appear to be natural and necessary whereas it is arbitrary and only sufficient.
Given that the art gallery/museum has been the prime location for art it is surprising that there has been very little written about the aesthetic impact and other effects of art galleries and museums. Paul Mattick, Jr. of Adelphi University notes this in his entry on museums in A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1992); adding that “a quick survey of the British Journal of Aesthetics and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism turns up not a single article devoted to the subject.” (p.297) Mattick did say “a quick survey”; my research was better, because I found two articles in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1941 (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy “Why Exhibit Works of Art” and John D. Forbes “The Art Museum and the American Scene”). Neither of these articles is particularly insightful and both conclude that there is an educational function to exhibition. Mattick’s entry in A Companion to Aesthetics is possibly the best article written on the subject; I wish that A Companion to Aesthetics had been published when I was writing my thesis it would have made my life a lot easier.
Mattick traces the history of the art museum from the proto-art galleries of European royalty designed to be impressive displays of power and wealth. To the first post-French revolution art museums that removed the religious, political and moral function of art organizing them and, in that process, expanding the categories of art to include, industrial and non-European arts.
Although the neo-classical architecture has mostly disappeared art museums haven’t changed their function from that of the proto-art gallery, a display of the state’s wealth and power. As displays of power political allegiances are on display in major art museums where the international collection will reflect the countries geo-political position. Those countries firmly in the American camp following the American version of art history in their collections, the Europeans having a slightly different version of art history and post-colonial countries another version.
And if articles about the aesthetic impact of art museums are rare, articles about art galleries are non-existent. This is why I pay particular attention to current gallery practices and to describing art galleries, counting the number of people working in the gallery, the type of lighting in the gallery, the type of space, etc. in this blog. Gallery practice will change but if nobody pays attention it people will assumed that current practice is natural. I wonder how much longer the white walled gallery will continue to be the norm?
(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)