Seldom have different episodes of this reviewer’s life been brought into such brutal conjunction as by a recent visit to the Light Show at London’s Hayward Gallery.
When training to be an art historian, if the artwork was deemed worthy of consideration (by no means a given), much time and thought was devoted to it. Its value was determined by its context: its relevance to the development of an art movement, or to the artist’s career, or to the political perspective of the Feminist or the Marxist, of the Structuralist or the Freudian. This did not worry me: as a liberal empiricist, I put the artwork, and my reaction to it, at the centre: the analyses provided by the various political approaches were all grist to my mill.
Things were different at the Arts Council of Great Britain, however. There, each art form took a different approach. The Art Department’s was the most extreme: it was assumed that no-one who was not professionally involved in contemporary art could possibly have any interest in, or anything interesting to say about, any artwork. The trouble was that we were allocating public money to the arts, and some interest in the reactions of visitors to funded exhibitions seemed to me to be literally essential.
The average visitor should not have to be so deeply knowledgeable about in the context of each artwork exhibited. And, once you strip away the context, there can be alarming instances of the emperor’s new clothes, that are picked on by the media with ill-disguised glee (Carl Andre’s bricks at the Tate, for example) in order to ridicule the arts in general.
Many years later, at Cameron Peters Fine Lighting, we are selling lights – works by the very finest architects and designers of the 20th century, some made by the very finest craftspeople. But the objects that they design and make have to survive with no context: specifiers and their clients have no interest in who designed something or who made something, and they don’t see any reason why the objects should be accorded respect or time. The light maker is therefore in the same position as the busker, who may be playing in a concert hall one evening (with all the cultural focus that the venue generates) and on a street the next (as all classical musician students are encouraged to do), where the members of the public are trotting by. If, as they trot, they find what they hear interesting, it is because of the intrinsic characteristics of the work being played, not because of its context.
Why is this relevant to the Light Show? Because quite a large space was carved out of the Hayward Gallery to create a dark room in which a naked lamp could be hung, quite near the floor (Katie Paterson’s Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight of 2008)…. Continue reading