marcus westbury

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Do we take art a little too seriously?

February 15th, 2010 by marcus

Perhaps it’s because my brain is still on holidays and I’m more inclined to laze around, wander up the street, and generally while away my days unproductively than to take art, culture and its consequences – or anything else for that matter – too seriously.

Art is often discussed in reverent tones , we invest in it, create daunting palaces for it. In the scale of reverence, it sits ever so slightly below death and religion. A quick look at my email in-box and you could be forgiven for thinking that art galleries are the new cathedrals, that every artist has an epic backstory, and every show needs to be hyped-up like an Oscar nominee.

But is art itself really all that serious? I hope not – or at least not always.

For a start, I’m not sure that all that seriousness actually helps much. The idea that seriousness is somehow a measure of value and that art needs to be treated seriously all the time is a weird one. Much of the time, people value things that make them laugh, cry, scream, think or inspired – much more than they value the worthy and the serious.

Of course art can be very serious. Certainly the content of art, or the issues that underlie it, or the trail of history and life experience that led to it can be very serious indeed. But art itself and the rituals by which we view, trade and discuss it can be downright daft. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is that art itself should be treated as no more or less serious than the emotions or experiences that it evolves from, communicates and represents.

For those of us who spend a lot of time with artists, it is a relief to realise that most of them aren’t always relentlessly serious. A lot of my favourite artists are very funny people. They invest their work with their sense of humour. All to often it can easily be ruined by the sense of humourless analysis and long-winded explanation. The barrier of superficial seriousness we cloak art in only serves to alienate a lot of artists from their potential audiences.

Ever noticed the hush in an art gallery? Why? Do we mistake art galleries for libraries? You need to be silent in a library so that other people can concentrate on long, wordy passages  if the descriptions are that long and dense in galleries the silence is probably not going to help.

There’s a place for quiet contemplation in art but it is one of many places. I’d like to think that there’s equally a place for loud conversation, robust debate, and animated piss-taking. Any of these could be at least as effective as monk-like concentration when it comes to engaging with and understanding what’s up on the walls.

Much the same could be said for the performing arts. Shakespeare’s plays benefited a lot from the robust environment in which they were originally presented. The immediate feedback from a loud, loutish and opinionated audience is far more effective in correcting the inevitable weak points in a work than polite silence followed by the occasional scathing review. I’m sure there’s data somewhere that will show that the decline in theatre as a major cultural force directly corresponds with the improving behaviour of its audiences.

Perhaps galleries and theatres large and small could start marketing days when the general public (and not just the select few who are invited to get drunk and animated on opening nights) could feel encouraged to offer up more genuine responses to the work? How about the occasional tumultuous Tuesday or a wild Wednesday down at the NGV?

Or perhaps mad matinees down at the arts centre? What’s the harm as long as no one breaks anything?

Far from alienating artists and their audiences, we may find that it actually starts to connect them. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone felt comfortable and confident enough in Australia’s art and artists to laugh and take the piss.


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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Genevieve Feb 15, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I agree! Who told us we have to shuffle silently through art galleries, pausing through obligation at every artwork for a minimum of 2-3 minutes? it’s bizarre! Nothing better than walking into a gallery and hearing conversation (out loud, not just the one in my head)…particularly when it comes to contemporary art.
    I think Festivals like the Biennale have done a wonderful job in getting more people into galleries, encouraging conversation and getting art on the public agenda.
    Love your idea of wild Wednesday…I’ll keep an eye out for it!

  • 2 Simon Feb 15, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Marcus: have you been to an Australian art gallery recently? They are basically shops and child amusement facilities with exhibition spaces attached. Whether for better or worse. They have no relation to “seriousness” as you imagine it… and then “art” itself is made up of so many different kinds of qualities and projects, most of which have and had at their moment of origin no or little relation to that kind of ‘seriousness”… …and of course art’s relation to public galleries is extraordinarily complex…..the fact that museums and galleries encourage silence has nothing to do with seriousness as some kind of aesthetic quality….silence is a limit it’s true but it’s necessary since it keeps these places public…i.e. prevents them from being dominated by particular individuals or groups… it gives people the space to think or enjoy as they wish, seriously or not seriously….

  • 3 john Feb 20, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Marcus about %95 of all art is in, Delacroix’s words, “Conscientious service of the art of boredum”.

  • 4 Daniel Hogan Mar 22, 2010 at 8:45 am

    I agree. The veil of seriousness needs to be lifted.
    Afterall, it is a pretty funny looking veil.
    Oh and it wouldn’t hurt to lift those furrowed brows once in a while.
    Afterall, do we really need to fill our face muscles with lactic acid every time we look at some art?