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Photons and Formaldehyde: The New Art-Viewing

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Issue: 6 Section: Arts

August 23, 2003

Photons and Formaldehyde: The New Art-Viewing

by Max Liboiron

photo by Erin Brubacher
In a world where crushed metal, urinals, and stripped paintings all parade under the banner of "fine art", many have cried out against the alienation of the viewer by contemporary art and art-systems. In reaction to this (or maybe just due to a seemingly inevitable historical trend), a new type of art and art-viewing has arrived, based on the all-too-familiar behaviours of consumerism. Some galleries have adjusted to this new style, and others are struggling to control it.

Not surprisingly, the most famous piece of art in the world is also the most consumed. Sliding into fame thanks to mass mention and production of her image, the Mona Lisa receives 1.5 million visitors every year. These visitors come to see the Original Masterpiece in the same way that others flock to Graceland. (Originality is the basis of tourism). They can be seen walking briskly, then jogging, then sprinting (picture it) down the Grande Galerie towards their goal, stopping only when the queue demands it. These visitors display a characteristic behaviour of pilgrims once united with their Object of Reverence; they desire a souvenir or memento that will contain an iota of the experience. Several times a second a flash from a camera goes off, regardless of the signs advising otherwise, the guards outnumbered and ineffective. This act of veneration becomes inappropriate and even grotesque when one stops to consider that every day, billions of powerful photons from the flashes are bludgeoning the Mona Lisa to death. She is looking positively green (the colour of her under-painting showing through) and her cracks are wider and more noticeable than those of her contemporaries. This year is her 500th birthday. I doubt she'll be around for another 500 at this pace.

The Mona Lisa's stardom has been a sort of happy accident for the Louvre, but some galleries base their collections on stardom. London's National Portrait Gallery has the sitter's name --in bold -- on the top of the identification card. The artist's name falls somewhere near the bottom, after the medium and dimensions of the piece, as an afterthought (how shocking!). Also treated as secondary are elements of composition and technique -- all that humdrum stuff. The visitor's energy is focused on how many names she recognizes, and on putting faces to these names. The gallery is Vanity Fair incarnate: it is a market of fame (shop as you please). Wonderfully, there is a portrait of Joan Collins by Andy Warhol done in the same style as his screen-printed "Marilyns". (Incidentally, he also did a screen-print of the Mona Lisa, called "Thirty Are Better than One".) Warhol made these prints in response to the mass packaging of celebrity images and their subsequent de-personalization and commodification. Whether Warhol made these prints as a critique or celebration is anyone's guess. (A man who sorted his mail by smelling the stamps is hard to understand.) Likewise, it is up to the viewer to decide whether the Portrait Gallery as a whole critiques or celebrates.

Cashing in on celebrity status is also the mainstay of the Saatchi Gallery, whose brand-new location places it smack dab in the middle of a tourist strip in London. The gallery houses the stars of the "Sensation" exhibit, which was loudly and publicly branded as scandalous by the delicate US media. Now who wouldn't want to see what America has labelled indecent?! Most visitors pay their eight pounds to see if the art is really as disturbing as it is reputed to be. The Saatchi Gallery realizes where its marketing power rests; it promises "Unreserved Damien Hirst at the Saatchi Gallery" on tickets and flyers. (Damien Hirst does paintings of coloured dots. Luckily for his career, he also cuts up livestock and puts the pieces in formaldehyde.) Visitors are not disappointed. They see the famous cut-up cow, the black Madonna with vaginas and elephant dung, the portrait of a serial killer painted with children's hand-prints.... But they also see less notorious pieces -- good pieces. All of it is quite accessible. The pieces are not in a "white cube", but in a grand old office building, complete with wood panelling; nor are the pieces behind glass (though you can no more touch these celebrity pieces than you can grab the rear end of a movie star -- both have bodyguards). And if you're really feeling alienated by a work, a helpful card beside it will give you justification for its existence. Saatchi, an advertiser and marketer by trade, effectively tricks people into his gallery and then makes them thankful for it.

While these galleries are not collapsing the ranks between "high" and "low" art, they are certainly mixing and matching the traditional audiences that went with those labels. The elite can no longer patronizingly assure the "untutored masses" that the work of the masses is just as good as the work of the elite (no, really, it is. I promise), because now (oh crap!) it's the same work. And those that grumble "my kids could do that" can now take their children to galleries and show them what to aspire to. The elite and the general public may still be resentful of one another when it comes to art, but now they have to do it side by side. The catalyst to this blending, this change in art-viewing, has just been effective marketing. It's all a little bit grotesque and a little bit amazing.

Max Liboiron has spent the last few months travelling in Europe. Along with Jane Henderson, she will be taking on the job of arts editor of The Dominion in September.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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