Barker, Huberman, Galleries & Curatorial Behaviour

Week 8 Reflections (Part Three), MA Falmouth University.  ‘Enter the Academy’

Museums Without Walls

Barker introduces the idea of how art is viewed today by citing the political and economic context in which the display institutions exist and notes that this impacts upon what we view, how it is viewed and the curation and election powers that lie behind the gallery protocols.  She notes that there are no ‘neutral containers’ offering an unmediated experience of art.  ‘Cultures of display’ describes the ideas and values that can shape the existence and function of an exhibition.  The relevance to the showing of photographic imagery is addressed particularly as she aims in her review to look at changes that have occurred in recent decades around the culture of institutions but the phenomenon of the temporary exhibition, the culture of spectacle and the concept of a museum without walls. Barker E. Contemporary Cultures of Display. Yale University Press. 1999

Barker records the phrase museum without walls originates from a translation of the French water Andree Malraux’s phrase ‘the imaginary museum’ published in 1947 and, whilst it was addressing the broadening of art in general, has been used to support the use of the facsimile of work and its distribution for wide audience and has a particular relevance to photography as the plate, flip or pixel file translates from the lens based apparatus to the print, the uniqueness lies in the exposure, not its ability to be reproduced at will.  Malraux wrote about a ‘new domain..a common heritage of all mankind’ (Malraux A. The Voices of Silence p.46) related to the expanded audience that expansion of art and its reproduction.

Barker argues that galleries in western cultures often assimilate art from other cultures, the most notable UK example is the Athenian Elgin marbles house in the British Museum, London.  She notes that photography is used to extract views of such works and enlarged prints are hung to exemplify the work, yet this has a tendency to further abstract it and thus remove it from its setting both geographically and also culturally. She sees photography as the servant of the art.

A rather more encouraging counterpoint is offered by reference to Walter Benjamin who, in 1936 wrote in “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ who wrote about the age of distribution and exposure and thus familiarity of art via the medium of repeated image.  He notes that art is shared via copy but in turn this is seen as driving up the popularity of the gallery, its content and its original. – the debate about devaluing and promoting the desire to see the real. Benjamin thought that ‘Earlier, much futile thought has been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art.  The primary question, whether the invention of photography has not transformed the entire nature of art, was not raised’ (Benjamin, 1936).

Berger argues about the loss of authority in art “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free”, for lacking the aura of the original work of art.  Berger, J. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, London, 1972, pp. 32–34.  Photography remains caught in the net of blame that sweeps the sea of art as common currency. I do consider the abiding point that Benjamin cites upholding the aura, the presence of an original and for the viewer the place and time it was seen and etched on to the emotional memory.

With the prevalence of contemporary art to harness objects and multi-media not only does photography feature within works, it has a role in image making for distribution more powerfully now through self-publishing (social media) and the exhibition catalogue and promotion to a greater degree than ever before.  The willingness of many galleries now to allow non-flash photography by its audience of a great range of work, we can assume in aiding learning but also promotion of the show and the institution.

The purity of Malraux’s proposition that photography is applied to the art and not the art of itself tends to be relaxed when you consider the temporary exhibition which can take place our in the realm of the street or the square.  In this instance the streets become the walls and there are no doors.  This is the most democratic ‘museum’ possible; no exclusions, no hush, no cliques.  Yet the content of such exhibitions is still subject to the curatorial hand.


The very word ‘display’ has connotations of ostentatious actions, about showing off, about performance and also the static exhibition of things. It is the act of making with the concomitant outcome of showing; the curator chooses, appoints, hangs, projects, writes, appraises and awaits the plaudits.  The audience and critics decide on the success by experience and observation.  Major galleries are controlled by funding agreements, benefactors (who often find themselves installed on the boards as non-ejective directors), historic status, their global contexts, audience expectations with their purses ready to disgorge cash for postcards, coffee, gourmet food and cupcakes.  The aura and presence of these people must consciously or subconsciously bear down upon the curators and perhaps even the artist.  One can surmise that the act of thinking about display in a defined space, confined by the weight of history and expectation shapes and impacts upon the content.  Art history (I include photography in that) provides reference and a compass point for work and curation and classification of work.  History is made in the context of now and in the present who knows who will be a driver for selection, chatter and desire.  Building a reputation for capturing who is ‘hot’ is counterbalanced by the risk of associating with the chill of missing the trend.  Celebrity status is realty self made, even in the internet age, it is crafted and promoted by the influential writers, media and the public relations firms who know the email addresses of each other.  There are the cabal of magicians who wave their wands at the chosen collaborators – the “real magicians of contemporary society were the museum curators” Deliss C. 1989 Conjuring Tricks Artscribe International, September-October, p.53.

The colour of the walls, lighting, plinths, features, temperature and humidity all contribute to the ‘feel’ of the spatial experience.  The method of hanging the work, the textual introduction imprints on the walls, its spacing and juxtaposition all contribute to the visual experience for the audience.  Baker refers to this as an “intensified aestheticification” p.14.   Carol Duncan describes the art gallery as a ‘ritual site’ where participation is a rarefied ritual which can reflect or deflect from the norms of society.  Duncan argues that NY MoMA is dominated by a gendered masculinity which one could simply propose is a signifier that the viewer, if conscious of it, will make judgements about what is seen and what is not seen.  Barker goes on to argue that there is a risk in the isolation of images and objects from their context, that the views can project on them meanings, values and assumptions.  The very inclusion of an image can bestow on it a preciousness. An art gallery can withdraw art from the market and away from the exclusivity of private ownership and into the democratic space on offer.  Yet it is argued that knowing the value commanded in the private market of an artist or a particular piece can tighten the attentiveness and fascination with the perceived or actual value of the work seen.  This happened to me at PhotoParis, 2016 when I enquired as to the value of an Edward Weston print which had sold.  Finding that it had exceeded 700,000 euros caused a gasp of wonder.

Barker cites Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, which spotlit the French cultural revolutionaries known as the Situationalists and their claim that life is largely mediated through images.  He lamented the increasing commodification of every day life founded on the Marxist view that consumption of mass culture upholds the interests of capital.  The spectacle deceives, seduces and dominates the spectator.

Galleries, happenings, performance and cultural festivals are gathering momentum as surveys demonstrate a shift away from the material to the experience, examples such as  “Millennials are prioritizing their cars and homes less and less, and assigning greater importance to personal experiences — and showing off pictures of them”

81% of the U.S. tourists are considered as ‘cultural tourists’ cited here

In my own city I have witnessed weekend tourism (differentiated from weekday business tourism (conference))

Bankside, the home of the newly expanded Tate Modern and its Switch Room is not just the epicentre of London’s international art experience but a very significant player in the reveal of land prices and thus development which has densified the commercial and residential buildings that have sprung to life in the last 17 years;  Art attracts, it sells goods and it anchors gentrification.

Toast or Roast?

Anthony Huberman in his paper ‘Taking Care’ (link to download writes about the New York City institutions that play a competitive, muscular game around programmes, curatorial competition and the media proposition of racially champions shows.

He writes about the tradition of the large beasts and the role of the smaller cultural organisations and their opportunity and not just what they show but how they behave which in turn may influence what they show.  He cites behaviours as the outward manifestation of values, thoughts, norms, actions and collaborations. He applies a questioning approach particularly to curatorial practice.  The philosopher Bruno Labour thinking on objects, images and ideas all have their own ‘agency’ and won’t simply ‘sit still’ under someone’s microscope and terms.  Huberman proposes some fluidity over certainty, to enable ideas and visual contracts to evolve, perhaps to cite Benjamin, for the magical aura to metamorphose via debate, contextual variance and the passage of time. Huberman posits that ‘an institution could stop behaving like an explanation machine’ and quotes Jacques Rancière calling for an equality of intelligence where this who know something engage with those who know something else. He looks for caring through sharing as opposed to telling through an arrogance of haughty authority.  A homage as a considered mix of tribute, analysis and open questioning is offered, via slowing down and taking time, the corollary of the ‘adman’s’ desire to drive change, the new, the next thing. Huberman seeks for more face time than ad time and encourages smaller insertions to create, debate and allow themes to flow over time and work to be shown to respond, to add, to provoke and to extend the life of a community that cares rather than an audience that passes. He concludes by suggesting a ‘contemporary ethic of curatorial behaviour’; more tasting than roasting is the plea.


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