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How did the aesthetic of the modern gallery come to happen, and why can we feel so excluded from it?


Right now, we live in a time of breaking down boundaries in the art world, because of this art is becoming ever more concept driven and this makes it difficult for people with less knowledge of the art world to understand and appreciate it. We place these obscure shapes and sculptures in a big, eerie, slightly stale feeling white room, at first glance these works on their own to the untrained eye mean nothing, but once we dive in to the process and concept only then will a new light shine on the work. This can create a sense of exclusion from the art world, as a basic education does not allow you to fully appreciate or understand certain aspects of modern art, which can create a sense of elitism within those who do. How has this occurred? When art has never been created to be for the few, but for the many, art has always intended to transmit a feeling or idea to its viewer no matter what background they come from.

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O-Doherty describes the modern gallery space as “constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church”.  So how did modern galleries become the way they are today?

To understand why galleries are the way they are we need to understand the history of galleries and curating. Art galleries have an interesting origin in palaces and great cathedrals, but this could be considered as a kind of elite prototype, as they were private collections. Art museums first became established in the United States in the late nineteenth century as an entitlement of the rich to show off their collections. They mainly dealt with easel paintings as they could be suspended and supported and were considered a transferable, mobile currency. According to Vera Zolberg “rich art collectors found an opportunity to exhibit their privately owned masterpieces and at the same time promulgate their own moral and artistic standards to the middle class”. So, it’s not a good start, but a lot of things have happened in the art world since then and we saw great shifts in people’s thoughts on “what is art” and how we view it in a gallery.


At the very beginning paintings use to be communally hung all over the walls in a Salon style where those pictures of seventeenth and eighteenth century collectors elegantly curated the perfect hanging job, displayed in an ingenious mosaic of frames without a patch of wasted wall showing (fig 1.). At this time most galleries consisted of a wide collection of framed easel paintings, they considered the easel picture as like a portable window that, once set on the wall, penetrates it with depth. The greater the illusion the greater the invitation to the spectator’s eye. Each painting divided by a frame that acts like a grid and there is no suggestion that the space within the painting is continuous with the space on either side of it.

 “The frame of the easel picture is as much a psychological container for the artist as the room in which the viewer stand is for him or her.” (O’Doherty)

The issue with this mosaic approach is the way pictures are hung makes assumptions about what is offered. Artists would be concerned about their work being placed too high for the viewer to appreciate the work in detail, the term “skied” was used or if the work was placed too close to the ground, “floored”, the best place of their work to be truly appreciated would be at eye level.


As art begins to evolve the formal more traditional style of composition is gone, the frames within the frames have slid away. We slowly drift away from the classic painted portraits of people and places that sit perfectly with in the frame and move towards a more ambiguous surface, which is partly framed from the inside by the horizon. “The powerful convention of the horizon zips easily enough through the limits of the frame.” (O’Doherty)

In one way or another, the edge of an easel as a firm convention in framing the subject had become fragile. This was prominent in the Impressionism movement, in which a major theme was that the edge determined what’s in and/or what’s out.  This was combined with a far more important force, the beginning of the decisive thrust that eventually changed our idea of the picture, how it was hung, and ultimately the gallery space: the myth of flatness. The development of a shallow literal space containing invented forms, different from the old more traditional illusory space containing “real” forms and this then put further pressure on the edge. The great inventor here is Monet. (Fig.2)

Monte’s landscapes create an illusion as if they seem to have been noticed on his way to or from the real subject. The lack of a concrete subject centering the composition of his paintings, the playfulness with light and reflections and the way Monet blurs details closer to the edge of the easel is a perfect example of how the “frame” starts to lose its restrictions, the very featureless of these details relaxes your eye to look elsewhere and invites you to imagine for yourself what the rest of the scene would look like. When William C. Seitz took off the frames for this great Monet show at Moma in 1960, (bear in mind this is the first time someone did this) the undressed canvasses looked a bit like reproductions at first until you saw how they began to “hold” the wall. This was the first step to a revolutionary idea that changed the way we looked at paintings and how we curate galleries by freeing paintings of their rigid frames, giving them a new life on the wall.

“The relationship between the picture plane and underlying wall is very pertinent to the aesthetics of surface. The inch of the stretchers width amounts to a formal abyss.” (O’Doherty)

After 1946 Photography was gaining its own platform in the art world which challenged our perception on how to frame a subject. The difference between framing a photograph and a painting is that in photography you must work within the rigid frame given to you by the camera itself, where as in contrast to a painting it is the artist who decides what he wants or doesn’t want to appear on the canvas.  In a photograph, the location of the edge is a primary decision, since it composes-or decomposes- what it surrounds. Eventually framing, editing, cropping-establishing limits- become important acts of composition.

As galleries slowly began to incorporate more and more disciplines in to their collections as opposed to just paintings they needed new ways of displaying these works of art, so there was rise of a new philosophy through the fifties and sixties in the “art of curating” and it was: How much space should a work of art have to “breath”? If paintings or photography implicitly declare their own terms of occupancy, the muttering between them becomes harder to ignore. Thoughts like: What goes together and what doesn’t? started to appear and the aesthetic of hanging evolves according to its own habits. We enter an era where works of art conceive the wall as no man’s land on which to project their concepts.

“Now a participant in, rather than a passive support for the art work, the wall became the locus of contending ideologies; and every development now had to come equipped with an attitude toward it. Once the wall became an aesthetic force, it modified anything shown on it. The wall, the context of the art, had become rich in content it subtly donated to the art.” (O’Doherty)

Most of us would “read” the hanging of paintings just as we would chew gum – unconsciously and from habit- but now the pictures start recur as reassuringly as the columns in a classic temple. Each demands enough space so that its effect is over before we begin to look at the next one. Otherwise the pictures would be detracting from the uniqueness claimed by each canvas.

The emergence of what we now call modern art can be linked to these changes within that space and in the way we see it. We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first. As modernism becomes to exist it slowly evolves until, context becomes content, ideas become more interesting than art. In a peculiar reversal, when the object now is introduced into the gallery it “frames” the gallery in a way and its laws.

“The transformation of literary myths into literal myths – objecthood, the integrity of the picture plane, the equalization of space, the self-sufficiency of the work, the purity of form- in unexplored territory. Without this change, art would have been obsolete.” (O’Doherty)

Now we have reached what many of us would call a “modern gallery” with similar aesthetics to a “white cube” (fig 3.) where the highly controlled feel of the modernist gallery does to the art object, what it does to the viewing subject, it objectifies it, because of the empty wall framing the art object it creates a contrast which detaches it from its surroundings and displays its self as an independent piece of art. We are now in a crucial moment for modernism where we can see how the context devours the object, becoming it.


The communal mind of our culture suddenly went through a significant shift that expressed itself in prominence of the white cube as a central material and expressive mode for art as well as fashionable style of displaying it. This style of display was influenced by “shop window” displays in New York and brought a new age of commercial galleries.

“The white cube was a transitional device that attempted to bleach out the past and at the same time controlled the future by appealing to supposedly transcendental modes of presence and power.” (O’Doherty)


The white cube has many roots which all finally come together in the 1930s in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Before and after the First World War, there was a desire to show works of art against a background with the greatest possible contrast to the dominating colors of the paintings.


With this contrast art exists is a kind of eternity of display unshadowed in a white, clean and sometimes artificial white space. The space offers the thought that while you are allowed to view the work, you aren’t allowed to be there. There is a sense that the outside world must not come in to the gallery so windows are usually sealed off, walls are painted white and the ceiling becomes the source of light …. The art is free ‘to take on its own life’ in a kind of eternity of display. “This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like; one has to have died already to be here” (O’Doherty)


This is why the “white cube” was such a success, it gave us a sense of this access to another world that can be viewed as elitist, which for some is the reason they want to be part of this other world but for others it creates a feeling of alienation. This idea of creating another world where paintings are sheltered from the appearance of change and time. This segregated space is kind of a non-space. This idea of this non-space has been compared to Plato’s vision of a higher metaphysical realm where form, shiningly attenuated and abstract mathematics, is utterly disconnected from the life of human experience here below. A place where pure form would exist. The idea of pure form now starts to dominate the aesthetics in galleries, this occurs at the same time abstraction and minimalism start to appear in the art world.

Some say that the white cube’s ultimate meaning is life-erasing transcendental ambition disguised and converted to specific social purposes such as personal gain i.e. selling art work. This is where the feeling of elitism starts to take form, when certain peoples personal gain outweighs even the artist personal gain.



Now surely we have all felt a bit out off place, or intimidated when entering our first “white cube” gallery O’Doherty describes the feeling of being in these galleries as if we were in a church : “In classical modernist galleries, as in churches, one does not speak in a normal voice; one does not laugh, eat, drink, lie down, or sleep; one does not get ill, go mad; sing, dance, or make love.” This sense of strict rules starts to give some people the sense of alienation and have difficulty appreciating the work, while those who have more knowledge of the work presented manage somehow, In O’Dohery’s words, give up their Humanness and become a cardboard spectator with the disembodied eye. But why should we have to lose our selves in favor of the Eye of the Spectator? How can we all be ourselves and still be able appreciate the art work placed in-front of us?

Unspoken rules of the gallery.


“Because art museums were designed by the rich and subsequently forced to depend on the rich for financial support, the stories of elitism and exclusion have been perpetuated over the years.” (Carol David)

O’Doherty describes each modern gallery as an attempt to cast an appearance of eternality over the status quo in terms of social values and also, In our modern instance, artistic values. But whose values? Well the values of the small group of collectors, investors and gallery owners that make up the art world, who try and enforce what they consider good taste through their galleries. Where is he artists voice?

With the governing bodies of museums and art galleries restricted to an inner group of the community’s elite citizens and the public image of artists then has to be defined, in part, by arcane language only familiar to those schooled in art. This is where the sense of alienation begins to take place, because many members of the middle and working class are denied an education towards an understanding and appreciation of art that would allow them to be a part of museum culture.


Need more galleries trying to avoid this


This raises a very big question – Certified by whom? Who decides that certain forms of art like animation are “mere entertainment” whereas another forms of art such as fine art is of “permanent value”? who even decides what fine art is? -Who decides that one form of art is political and another above and beyond politics? Who defines the terms, decides on the evaluative criteria, and/or determines the lines the rules of the game? Why the experts, of course: (carefull don’t be so opinionated and present a balanced argument)

“Persons like Smith and the Reagan arts advisors-  a partial, passionate, and political proponents of high culture. It is on this most -important-of-all question, and the circular reasoning that justifies it, that the arguments of Smith and the Reagan advisors begin to fall apart.” (Robert Bersson) Why do they fall apart clarify

This basically means that people who are not directly involved in the art world should probably not be deciding on what is or isn’t art. Should we let the artists decide for themselves? Or is that an even worse idea?

“Art is what you can get away with” (Andy Warhol)


“However, art museums are not solely responsible for this exclusion. Political theorist Antonio Gramsci blames the larger institutions, especially the school system and its selective curriculum, for the general public’s learned values” (Ransome).

This brings me to my next issue, the lack of appreciation of art in the schooling system, many people like Ken Robinson believe art should be taught in schools with just as much importance as Math or History. The values in most school systems are normally politically constructed and have very little study of art, art history and art criticism. This kind knowledge must be gained through special activities out of school that privileged families seek for their children. Not only do a lot of members of the middle and working classes not have easy access to this kind of enrichment, but as a result of hegemony, they often do not desire or seek this artistic knowledge.

“Gramsci elucidates the concept of hegemony as a system exercised by the dominant group so that social control is maintained in part with the consent of the subordinated groups” (Ransome 142).

Gramsci believes that the educational system should offer a broad and egalitarian education to all children. It has even become a fact in recent years that economic, social, and cultural capital are inextricably entwined and exchangeable; and the possession of cultural capital, such as a modern painting offers a means of accessing a higher social status as well as the people and activities that govern power. Exclusion from cultural capital, on the other hand, through family background, denies large part of the population financial, social, and cultural advancement. So even with a college education, people lacking this cultural capital and knowledge may not be able to access artistic masterpieces as they may feel excluded by their lack off knowledge. This is where there is a ridge created by our education system that makes people who haven’t had the chance of an artistic education to feel excluded from these concept driven galleries.

How do we solve this? Well we can’t know for sure, but what we do know is that your background doesn’t affect whether you are able to be an artist or not, as history has given us artists from every corner of the cultural and financial ladder. The first step to solving this in my opinion is to create an education system that values art and can give young students creative freedom. We should focus less on what is right and wrong in the art world and just let it evolve in to something (beautiful) free of boundaries placed by an elitist minority.

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