Exhibitions and existentialism

What makes a great art show?

3 AUGUST 2016,
The mask of Tutankhamun
The mask of Tutankhamun

Unusually this month I have not chosen to write about an exhibition or an artist enshrined forever in history, but rather to narrate some of the context for exhibiting more generally and of the indicators of success for museums, artists and curators. In doing this I have alighted on the antecedents for contemporary exhibitions practice and the oft made claim for ‘great’ exhibitions. I also mention ‘greatness’ in the same breath – not to denote or proclaim any particular shows as great - but rather to talk about the longevity/transience of larger and smaller showings of work and their historical representations.

But even before I start on this, (possibly doomed), project, I have to say that in the true style of any rigorous academic researcher I went straight to Google Scholar to seek the answer to a personal question: ‘What makes a great exhibition?’ Refreshingly, and much to my surprise, I drew a relative blank (which tells you the difficulty/folly of my premise). Remembering my Hegel, I then sought out antithesis in the hope of identifying what makes an awful exhibition; still no joy. Having searched images for awful artworks I came rapidly to the realization that I was in a target-rich environment. No fun here then.

The quality of greatness, eminence, significance, importance etc. is relatively simple to connote in relation to people, after all we have Alexander the Great, The Great Houdini, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Edith Cavell, Thomas Edison et al. who are all acknowledged as having made some kind of difference through action or innovation with practical, long-lasting (irrevocable?) or widespread consequences, changes or benefits. These figures symbolize human endeavor, innovation and inventiveness. Simple right, just apply the same to exhibitions stupid?

Next I thought it might be useful to look at greatness through the lens of ‘great’ events: The Great War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, the Great Famine, (I was minded to include the Great Escape – but thought this a digression!).

The above signify, randomly, events that impacted global or societal memory, as natural or man-made phenomenon or misfortunes, but they are historical landmarks denoted as momentous or ‘Great’. These are generally not self-proclamations of greatness, nor are they the products of marketeer’s hyperbole, but more a historical canon around scale, tragedy or those rare, recognizable outpourings of collective societal joy.

By this time you are probably wondering where I am going with all this and what on earth it has to do with the contemporary art, but indulge me a little longer in the argument. Incredibly, it was some almost a quarter of a millennium after the Renaissance, (probably in the first part of the 18th Century) that we first began to see the development of a commercial market for art beyond the religious patronage and family sponsored commissions of portraits, flowers, animals or landscapes that had long been the staple diet for the consumers and producers of the visual arts in Europe.

By the mid-1750’s, key venues such as London’s Royal Academy and the first French salon had become established in making selling exhibitions of selected artworks, and not only was there a market, but there emerged market makers for art as a new, value added commodity. There were also artists who calculatingly re-developed the style of their work to meet the needs and emerging tastes of this new and fast evolving audience. This period also saw the emergence of extraordinary narrators such as Ruskin who effectively introduced a new form of writing which mediated visual art through narrative language - the writing of art criticism or art appreciation.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all nations took place over a 6 month period in London’s Hyde Park in an extraordinary temporary structure called the Crystal Palace, and by the late 1850’s, the first major national touring exhibitions had begun to emerge, and the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester (1857) and the Exhibition of National Portraits in London (1866-68) modelled an early concept of the ‘touring package’ extremely effectively.

As the art of this time became more tightly embraced by buyers and the Salon, we also started to see the rise of alternative exhibitions of artists who could not get shown, commonly known as the Salon des Refusés (literally the ‘Room of the Refused’). With the benefit of hindsight we can comfortably scoff that the ‘Refused’ included the likes of Whistler, Manet and other major artistic figures-to-be. Towards the end of the 19th century, artists were becoming increasingly proactive in developing and opening (often brief) exhibitions of their own work, unmediated by the market makers or critics (we would now probably call them ‘pop-up’ exhibitions).

With the advent of the 20th Century, key shows such as the touring survey ‘International Exhibition of Modern Art’ in New York (1913), Modern Art landed in Europe and the USA. Subsequent to this, we leap, (not effortlessly) to the London International Surrealist Exhibition (1936) by way of the Cologne Art Fair (1960’s) and then to the momentous ‘Artifacts from the Tomb of Tutankhamun’ at the British Museum. Behold, the ‘Blockbuster’ was born.

As an eleven-year old boy I remember clutching the precious ‘King Tut’ newspaper pullouts, the infinite queue and the chunky illustrated catalogue; the exhibition was seen by over 1.6 million people in London alone. The greatness of (all of) the above is probably hard to imaging and therefore contest, but one thing at least to record is that the ‘International Exhibition of Modern Art’ in New York (a.k.a. The Armory Show) was in fact only open for 8 weeks before moving to Chicago and Boston and fizzling out.

Tutankhamun and the like awakened museums to the fact that the potential for exhibition-making had become a whole new ball game to be fueled by media, word of mouth and reputation. The quest to repeat such exhibitions - which unlocked new and substantial streams of income through ticketing and merchandising –was well and truly on. The flood gates were opened globally and the procession ensued: Impressionists, Surrealists, Post Impressionists, The Sculpture Show, Monet, Manet, Hockney, Bowie, Matisse, Kapoor, Ai WeiWei etc. We are pretty used to it now and have almost come to expect (if not dread), the populist footfall that interrupts our ability to see great work in major shows in major venues.

In a spirit of nauseous futility I could go on, but I won’t, instead I will insinuate something both disquieting and disruptive into the logic thus far: If the progressive arc above builds an equation that directly measures greatness by audience size and blockbuster shows then we have a problem and a question: why have some of the most memorable, historically important and influential art shows in history been ephemeral, poorly attended and publicly vilified?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects (1970), the Air Show (1966-7) The Air-Conditioning Show (1966-7) et al. - shows that perhaps epitomize this quandary. These ‘exhibitions’ (I use the word advisedly), were seen by relatively few and were appreciated by even less as they alienated the cognoscenti and the casual viewer alike - and yet have grown to near-legendary proportions within the annals of art history. Essentially, Conceptual Art is probably the most narrated, most re-narrated and most revised of any movement associated with (the demise of) modernism. The point is that Conceptual Art, as one of the most susceptible, controvertible and most malleable of stories, is a pure gift to revisionists of art history making it one of the most trodden areas of art history. Any vested artist or curator who dares vocalize their internal monologue around their exhibition ‘will anyone come to see it?’ will understand where I am coming from with this train of thought.

To misappropriate the commonly misquoted philosopher George Berkeley, (in his work, 'A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge' (1710); ‘if a tree falls down in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?’ (If an exhibition is held and nobody goes to see it, did it really exist? (and does it really matter?).

The evidence of the volume of words/history generated around the invisibility and relative inaccessibility of Conceptual Art serves to problematize financial and social narratives around the democratization or popularization of art, and of what might constitute a successful exhibition.

I will leave you with three final thoughts on this treatise:
Evidence tells us that the majority of visitors to many major museums other spend more time in the coffee shop and gift shops than looking at their exhibitions or displays.
The susceptibility (transience) of an exhibition, artist or movement to revision is probably directly in proportion to its half-life or longevity.

And finally, to misapply the words of William Shakespeare to exhibitions: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’.