marcus westbury

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Why don’t people laugh in art galleries?

March 15th, 2010 by marcus

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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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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sancz Mar 15, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    SHHHH!

    “the decline in theatre as a major cultural force directly corresponds with the improving behaviour of its audiences.”

    i think the rise of television might have something to do with it, but then again, people happily will shout insults at the screen and offer running commentary. part of the enjoyment of popular entertainment is the ability to participate – but it just wouldn’t do in the theatre…

    nice idea for mad matinees. I’ve noticed that even when actors encourage audiences to get vocal, panto-style, they tend to get stuck by convention.

  • 2 Jonathan S Mar 16, 2010 at 5:56 am

    I visited the Asia Pacific Triennial a couple of weeks ago and was struck by the lack of solemnity. People were laughing and there was a lot of smiling. The ones laughing tended to be less than five years old or so, but the general mood was a lot less solemn than is generally the case in galleries, because – at least this is my impression – the gallery and this exhibition in particular are designed to be welcoming to children and families.

  • 3 Stilgherrian · The 9pm Edict #5 Mar 16, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    […] For more information on what I discussed today, try the NSW police media releases about Sunday’s explosion and Monday’s arrest, the Urban Taskforce media release and the ABC’s story on same, this Sydney Morning Herald story on various NSW Labor connections, Kristina Keneally’s Wikipedia entry, my post on Maurice Newman’s speech and the PM report on same, and Marcus Westbury’s column for The Age. […]

  • 4 Adam Mar 18, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    In general, it’s true, especially in the ‘daunting palaces’. But there is a lot of humourous work around at an emerging level I think sometimes people do laugh at (with) it. Although sometimes they also try not to laugh, in case anyone takes offence. I love it when someone laughs in a gallery. People giggled at Hit and Miss at the omfg! show. And I’ve certainly heard people laugh at things I’ve made before (hopefully in a good way). It’s worth also making the point I guess that humour and seriousness are not distinct from each other and often exist within the same work.

  • 5 Information Security Apr 14, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    I guess it depends on the type of galleries you go to. The Tate Modern in London sees lots of conversation and controversy. Its far from quiet and it is welcome.

  • 6 Millie Holloman Photography Jul 11, 2013 at 4:00 am

    Nice post which those of us who spend a lot of time with artists, it is a relief to realize that most of them aren’t always relentlessly serious. A lot of my favorite artists are very funny people. They invest their work with their sense of humor. Thanks a lot for posting.