The Contemporary Art Gallery
Artists, gallerists, curators, collectors, and critics—these are the essential components of a contemporary art world. Artists make the art that galleries display; this art is evaluated by critics and purchased by collectors or by curators for museums. Take any one of these components away, and our art world system would collapse. Galleries are admission free, unlike most museums. But the commodities they sell are not affordable by most art critics. The grandest galleries can afford more attractive displays than museums. But they have relatively small audiences and so feel more like private clubs than public spaces. There are a great many studies of the art museum. By contrast, the art gallery has inspired much less attention. That is surprising, for almost inevitably contemporary art goes from the gallery to the museum. Anyone who takes even a casual interest in contemporary visual art knows art galleries. Nowadays ubiquitous, because they are so familiar, we perhaps do not sufficiently realize how distinctive they are. We take them for granted, which perhaps is why there is no history of these institutions.
In our art world no central authority determines aesthetic judgments. Kant’s What is Enlightenment? (1784) argues that we have the right to free inquiry, for only then can humanity progress. His Critique of Judgment (1790) says that each person’s aesthetic judgments must be the product of their own experience, for there are no criteria governing such judgments; nothing any authority says can tell me how I should judge. Taste is “as a kind of sensus communis,” a “faculty for judging that in its reflection takes account of everyone else’s way of representing . . . in order as it were to hold its judgment up to human reason as a whole . . .” When I judge for myself, I am judging for everyone, which is to say that my judgment must abstract from my personal limitations. Here, then, is the link between art gallery displays and freedom of thought—between artistic and political modernism. Of course I am not claiming that this historical perspective is known to or discussed by gallerists. Just as politicians do not ordinarily have the inclination or time to debate Kant’s political claims, so too people who work in galleries need to go about the business of displaying and selling art. They do not need to make these concerns explicit, for something like this worldview, implicit in their practice, is the necessary ground for their activities.
At present, galleries do not entirely fulfill this ideal political role because—as several commentators here note—some visitors find them socially intimidating. Entering a Giorgio Armani store wearing Gap blue jeans, unless you are unusually self-confident you may feel intimidated. Grand clothing stores reasonably expect that customers will be able to buy something. Yet galleries do not; they are aware, of course, that a visiting critic may write a review. In principle anyone can enter a gallery, but they do readily feel intimidating to outsiders. A middle-aged African-American artist told me that his presence in galleries sometimes creates suspicion.
If galleries are so important, why do they receive little attention? Julian Bell’s Mirror of the World: A New History of Art (2010), a very satisfying update of Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950), describes the emergence by 1737 in Paris of ‘the public,’ defined in proto-Kantian terms as that “community of the literate, shaped by conversation and newspapers”—our art world. But Bell’s illustrations, apart from those showing art within permanent sites, present painting and sculpture isolated from its visual context. Only specialist histories illustrate art in the gallery or museum setting in which it is viewed. That setting may in fact affect the critic, but in reviewing she or he is expected to occult everything but the work on display. We never actually see paintings or sculptures in visual isolation—we always encounter them in some visual setting. But when art is photographed, typically we are shown only the art itself, in a continuation of the practice Clement Greenberg called tunnel vision.
As editor of ARTSEEN, this month I sought descriptions of memorable galleries, discussions of their politics and history, and anecdotal personal accounts. There are important precedents for our investigation. Brian O’Doherty’s classic Inside the White Cube (1976) focused on the history of gallery spaces, linking the development of the gallery to the history of modernist art. Victoria Newhouse’s Art and the Power of Placement (2005) offers a lavishly illustrated account of how displays interpret art. She practices a kind of connoisseurship, looking at the collective works constituted by these displays. Two of my own essays may be relevant: “Fashion Desire. Giorgio Armani’s Art Gallery,” ArtUS 14 (July-September 2006): 25-35; “The Poetics of the Art Museum,” Curator: The Museum Journal 52, 3 (July 2009): 221-28. And Steven Harvey has drawn my attention to one essential reference: http://www.nycartspaces.com/gallery_history.php.
is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.