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The price of free art

The British Museum regularly makes a virtue of the fact that the Elgin Marbles Can be seen “free of charge, seven days a week“. There are downsides to free museum admission though & in the end, there is a price to be paid for everything.

The Times [1]

June 1, 2008
Is there a price to pay for free art?
We love art now, especially when it’s free, but there is a price to pay for free art discovers our writer as he joins the crowds at London’s leading attractions
Bryan Appleyard

In Tate Modern, Simon Halberstam, a father of three, thinks for a moment, then says: “It’s better for them to stand in front of a urinal than stay at home with a Wii.” Marcel Duchamp’s ironic “ready-made” sculpture, Fountain, he’s saying, is superior as an educational tool to Nintendo’s enervating games console. And so Halberstam, with his friend Michael Rosehill and his two children, are spending the spectacularly wet bank holiday at the Tate.

The Tate has met them halfway with a special Long Weekend event. This involves filling the Turbine Hall with games – the Flux Olympiad – created by the artist Larry Miller. There is ping-pong with tables full of holes, chess with pieces distinguished by their smell, and a series of wacky races on a rather beautiful track running half the length of the hall. One race is running backwards, demon-strating which a Tate employee crashes into a small toddler mound at the finishing line, sending beakers flying.

Older or more artistically engaged family members leave the kids at the games to ponder conventional, less interactive, less perilous art in the actual galleries. The consensus among those left behind with the toddlers at the Olympiad is that this was a fair trade-off. Early proximity to art is better than deadly exposure to the mindless-fun nexus. And the Tate, not just with the Olympiad but also with its previous helter-skelter and big crack in the floor in the Turbine Hall, has rushed to satisfy the longing for something better, higher. “Better here than Thorpe Park, or, God forbid, Chessington,” says Tom Beard, father of two.

There are problems, however. One mother says her toddler likes galleries because of the echoes, and so he shrieks a lot. This is not great for contemplative sorts; indeed, my colleague Waldemar Januszczak has complained that the Tate is being turned into a crèche. I am relieved he wasn’t there last Monday – it was more like, well, Thorpe Park.

And, if that weren’t enough, the north, river-facing wall of the museum has been covered by six gigantic examples of “street art”. “Very colourful,” says one old lady, peering through the downpour. Well, yes. And free – indeed, you don’t even have to get to the Tate to see the pictures. They’re clearly visible from vantage points in the City. It’s art that’s just there in the world, waiting for you to pass. (The fact that it is not street art, it is tamed, institutionalised street art, a form turned into a style, is, for the moment, beside the point.)

Art is like that these days – available, reaching out, no longer content with sitting in quiet corners waiting for our epiphanies. Waiting is out, luring is in.

It is certainly working. Last Monday, 20,516 people visited the British Museum, and its annual figure is now at 6.03m, a step change from the 4.5m-5.5m visits of the past five years. Visits to national museums as a whole have risen about 16% over the past four years. Tate Modern had 100,000 visits over the Long Weekend and is running at 5.2m visitors a year. Other museums have had more spectacular leaps. The V&A jumped 138% in the five years to 2006, but this was primarily due to the ending of admission charges in 2001. Whatever the cause, the new reality is that art and heritage have taken on a central place in a leisure economy previously dominated by sport and Thorpe Park. In that role, for good or ill, art finds itself playing by different rules.

Half a mile upriver from the Tate is the Telectroscope, an utterly zany but quite brilliant installation by Paul St George for the producers Artichoke. Planted in the ground next to what is now the Boris Schloss, it is a Jules Verne-styled tube in faux-brass and faux-iron apparently plunging into the ground. Glass at one end reveals it to be a kind of telescope. Its twin is by the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Look through the glass and you appear to be staring down a 3,400-mile transatlantic tube. New Yorkers and Londoners stare at each other, wave, hold up signs and, above all, dance. Everybody, me included, dances in front of the glass; it seems, somehow, to be the right protocol.

What is truly brilliant about the Telectroscope is that what it does is, in fact, nothing special. We can all “video conference” through our laptops from Starbucks. And that’s all the tube is, a broadband link – a very good one, incidentally; the image is superb. Yet what St George brings to the party is the power of metaphor and the restoration of wonder. The undersea tube is a metaphor for our new connectivity, and the Victorian styling – deliberately clunky – evokes a time when technology was wondrous and physically heavy, a muscular rather than merely a mental effort.

It certainly works. People were dancing in the lashing rain at 10am on Monday, and, amazingly, at 5am in New York, too – there was one guy in a baseball cap and one in a beanie just standing there and occasionally waving. Beanie eventually held up an enigmatic message on a whiteboard, something about Columbia. We couldn’t ask what he meant, though, because our whiteboard and felt-tips were soaked and unusable.

Later, a queue has built up, waiting amiably in the rain in a spirit-of-the-Blitz kind of way. Why are they there? “Amazing”, “wonderful”, “a community feeling”, “had to see it”.

Of course, the buzz word would be “interactivity”. The Telectroscope can be just looked through, but it only really works if you do something – wave, dance. It is a thing to do, not just to visit, even on a wet bank holiday. This is an important way in which art is competing with Thorpe Park, Wii, or, indeed, television. People now expect to be either physically engaged or rapidly and undemandingly informed. Quiet contemplation is still there to be had, but, for the kind of mass audiences now involved, you need ping-pong tables with holes.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is packed. Next to Frederic Leighton’s sculpture Athlete Struggling with a Python, a father is saying to his son: “He’s really fighting with that snake, isn’t he?” Of course, the other aspect of all this – hinted at by the word “better” in “better than, God forbid, Chessington” – is parental aspiration and educational anxiety. That V&A father was using the melodramatic Leighton to get the idea of sculpture as interesting into the boy’s head. It’s not interactive, but it does offer another form of engagement that we all fear may be lost in the culture of distraction: an engagement of silence and stillness.

Not that the V&A can remain pure. It is currently running a show about the Supremes. It’s pretty bad, frankly: gloomy and lost in a hard-to-find corner of the fashion department. Furthermore, on Monday, the video and audio of one of its attempts at interactivity – a recreation of the control desk at Motown Studio A – isn’t working. But there are films providing context by locating Diana Ross and friends in the civil-rights movement. I can’t help mistrusting this easy con-textual thinking. There is, for example, a quote on the wall: “Motown’s songs of romance ascended with the promise of change and faded with the onset of cynicism.” Oh, come on. There are plenty of other songs of romance and plenty of promise around in the age of cynicism, and Motown’s decline was just that: Motown’s decline. But, I suppose, glib contextualism is felt to be necessary to jolt the mind into some kind of activity.

The primary audience for Diana and Les Girls is, predic-tably, of a certain age. Steve and Maria Hobbs are in from St Albans and – the reverse of the guys at the Tate – they are here because their children have grown up. Maria several times uses the word “ought” to explain why they have come. At one level, the museum seems to be expiating the guilt one should feel – one ought to feel – when some foreign friend expresses dismay that you have never been to St Paul’s or whatever. Yet, at another level, that “ought” from the visitors sans brats is the correlative of the educational anxiety of the accompanied adult. There is something in these walls, something beyond getting and spending, beyond function, that needs to be known.

That “something” is, of course, problematic. The metaphysics of art do not inhabit the contemporary vernacular. We don’t know what it is because we haven’t got the language. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square makes the point. We can’t agree what to put on it, so we hand it over to a succession of artists. Currently, it has Thomas Schütte’s Model for a Hotel 2007, which looks feeble from a distance. The next one is being chosen from a shortlist, only one of which, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Plinth, makes any attempt to engage with the space and the plinth itself. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Make Art, Not War is so glib, I can’t actually believe it’s seriously being considered. Empty, the plinth attests to the metaphysical void once inhabited by art.

Down at the Science Museum, I can barely move for the giant baby buggies. This is where you go with children on a rainy bank holiday. It has everything: interactivity, weird stuff and gee-whizzery on a huge scale. It does it well. No wonder – the current director is Chris Rapley, one of the best scientists we have. At the moment, however, there is an oddity lurking on the first floor. This is Listening Post, a work of art more than science, by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. It consists of a wall of tiny dot-matrix screens, across which flow and shimmy fragments taken from internet chatrooms. The words are also spoken by a neutral voice. The work shifts through different themes and rhythms, giving it a symphonic aspect.

It is superb. The New York Times critic rightly said it suggested a chapel of the age of communication. It has two big problems, however. First, it is partly disturbing, suggesting loneliness and anxiety. Second, you need to sit there in the half-dark, quietly doing nothing, silent and still. That’s what I did and, in the midst of the buggy-infested Science Museum on a wet bank holiday Monday, I was – entirely and at last – alone.