Responses to an open letter to Dr Penelope Curtis, director, Tate Britain
- . . . your letter to Tate Britain is spot on. As you know this is a theme I think very important, part of the general displacement of the engaged, embodied imagination by – not even the discursive intellect – just information, really.Iain McGilchrist. Psychiatrist, writer. Author of ‘The Master and his Emissary’. Scotland
- An excellent letter Gary – I hope it receives the respect and measured response it deserves. Education itself – not least arts education – has lost the ‘contemplative’ dimension. It is all themes, issues and information exchange. Arts institutions have been bullied into providing ‘education’ partly to compensate for the marginalization, not to say elimination, of the arts from the school curriculum. If you want a grant these days you must do education to justify it. The distracting ‘narratives’ you rightly condemn are part of the packaging.Malcolm Ross. Art educationalist. Exeter University.
- I couldn’t agree more – and have witnessed a similar destruction of the Ashmolean, particularly the greatly loved Tradescant room. The worst thing is that the ‘analysis’ of the artworks are encouraged on a level that is not even truly analytical, in my opinion.Professor Sunetra Gupta. Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology. Novelist. Oxford University.
- I was recently at such an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. About Picasso and his influences, I thought I was going to visit with some of my favorite paintings, but rather was in a hodge-podge of paintings meant to “educate and teach” me. Must be an unfortunate trend.Dr. John Zeisel. President and co-founder of the I’m Still Here Foundation and Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, Ltd. USA
- Well written and well said. Hope they will get some attention.Govinda Sah. Painter. Nepal and London
- Thanks for sharing your “Open Letter” to the Tate Britain. In 2013, I spent two weeks in London and did National Gallery, British Museum, Tate Britain & Tate Modern, Albert and Victoria twice. When visiting any museum, I have an internal conflict between reading educational material versus just emotionally engaging the art itself. More and more, I am letting go of the former and embracing the latter. I quite agree with your comments about turning art museums and galleries into classrooms.
At the Denver Art Museum (DAM to the locals), there is an exhibit “Matisse and Friends.”
There are only 14 paintings in a small area. The physical atmosphere and explicit focus of the exhibit is to fulfill the following quote from Matisse which is posted at the beginning of the exhibit:
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.
There are easy chairs, love seats arranged in front of most of the paintings… it’s very intimate; all arranged in a small gallery of the museum. There is very little didactic information. One is really encouraged to contemplate, to breathe in, the art. When I went to the DAM to enjoy this exhibit, it was my fate to be there with a high school French class.
The first challenge was to maneuver for a chair or just stand until one became available. The students were respectful and gave way to their elders. The teacher was making comments about the paintings. The students were sprawled about writing their emotional responses to the paintings (in French). I did engage them about their project and visiting France, it nonetheless impacted the intended meditative atmosphere. So while I enjoyed that aspect of it, I was adapting more than engaging as the exhibit intended. As they gradually dispersed, I was able to have that more contemplative experience. As you say, these are two different experiences and curators needed to decide what they really want and then restrict such classroom experiences, e.g., have a slideshow of the paintings in a separate room, do the French exercise (writing their emotional responses to the paintings in French), then put everything away and go to the gallery itself and engage the art without any educational agenda.
I plan to go back and hopefully have a more quiet and armchair experience.
Thanks as always for your reflections on art and mind.
Leon Krier. USA
- I like what you are saying and feel many lives are blighted by ticking boxes and reaching targets rather than appreciating the life we have and enjoying the resourcefulness of our creative nature.Nicky Moss. Sculptor
- I read your letter with great interest and absolutely support your view of the importance of the aesthetic/ecstatic experience. I was lucky enough to have experienced both this weekend once in art and once in music. The former was the last room of the Kiefer exhibition where finally there were no labels or descriptions and one could just soak up the glorious (and long awaited) colour and the second was Nina Stemme’s portrayal of Isolde at the ROH. I subsequently read an extremely interesting essay in the programme relating the psychological/philosophical and musicological content of the work, in particular the Transfiguration….which was all very fascinating but added nothing to visceral experience of it, the famous tingle factor which makes certain pieces so fabulous. It’s what makes most people return again and again for the experience but seems unrecognized or undervalued by the curatorial classes ….but then I guess they are trying to justify their existence by intellectualising their input.Judith Strong. Musician. London
- Thank you for copying me in on your wonderful letter to Tate Britain. Absolutely in agreement with you on the points you raised. Will be very interested to see their comments – supposing they actually reply!Sheila Hayman. Ex art professional. London
- I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting….
Even in 2014 not many people in the art world seem to have the courage to question some of the more malign influences of Obergruppenfuehrer Serota’s extended empire, but Waldemar Januszczak, rarely, did (in The Times, 8 February 2009):
“The Tate is the salon of today: pompous, arrogant, all-powerful and utterly convinced of its superiority. What began as a force for progress and coherence has turned into a cultural despot that has the government’s ear… The salon art of today is tortuous, dull, inert and, above all, tired-looking.”
Not wrong, some of us think!
Christopher Gordon. Winchester
- I am totally in agreement with you Garry. I enjoyed reading what you had to say about this in your book. I hope you get a, (well deserved), response.Stephan Dowsing. Artist. Spain
- Thank you for including me in your recent mailing about the Tate. Although I am as convinced as you that this particular point is an important issue for Art with a capital letter, it also touches on other distracting influences involved in the consumption of art through the medium of our major galleries; art as commodity, fashion, tourist attraction, pop culture etc.
Art as story is very much a symptom of our time. Like News and Science, Art is being wrapped in layers of anecdote and storytelling. I recently saw the Anselm Keiffer exhibition at the RA. It was raw, bruising, visceral. I could read no words. I just wandered, despite the hoards of other people, transfixed and ignorant of anything but my own response. Keiffer is not in any need of words. However, later that week I finally watched Alan Yentob’s Imagine program about Keiffer. Would I have benefited from seeing it beforehand, yes of course. But in this instance whatever I needed to know about Keiffer and his vision, needed to be separated form my viewing of his work in order for reflection and a deeper perception of what I had seen to be possible.
I also recently saw the Late Turners. Now strangely, here was an exhibition where I welcomed the words. I am a great knee bending acolyte of Turner. He has run through my art history learning like a brilliant light. But there I was needing to see in my minds eye the frail, elderly, indomitable genius at work through the words on the wall. I’m old school enough to want to hear artists speak, read their letters, get in their heads. But I know a bit about art history. It was the reaction of my dear scientist husband that surprised me. He read everything, looked at everything and was enthralled. I suggested we go for tea afterwards and he said yes he was exhausted. I said yup all that standing is tiring, but he said no, it’s mental exhaustion. And he meant it as a compliment. He had met someone that day, and marvelled in both his humanity and his artistry.
I know this doesn’t relate to the hang at Tate Britain, so please excuse this digression, but I am very concerned that Art is becoming just art. Not everyone has much art history education and the ‘I don’t much like Turner’ (you can substitute any ground breaking artist name here!) comments drive me to distraction. Not everyone has the patience or the knowledge to look at or indeed see an artwork in that communion that you describe.
As an artist who produces work based on science I am constantly in the midst of a more lowly version of this dilemma. To tell or not to tell. When I can be at a gallery myself, at a PV for example, I ask people if they want to know about the work, and am happy to chat on whatever level they offer me. But I do feel the need to write something for the wall for when I am not there. There is NO easy way to explain my art, either as art or as science. Strangely the effort involved in trying to explain is actually helpful to me. The ideas can be too fleeting otherwise and need netting before they escape.
Science is a very unique kind of story, but story all the same. Art also is a multitude of stories BUT as you say, does have a strong spiritual and psychological power. For these to come into play we must be completely engaged with a the work. I totally agree with that.
I personally am happy for galleries to make up stories to tell their audience, stories which I can and do ignore if I want to. However, if story helps an occasional person, like my husband, to look more, to become more fully engaged with work that is complex and nuanced, then I’m pleased with that. Of course some stories that galleries tell can be too awful for words. The words accompanying the Degas exhibition at the RA some years ago, for example, were contrived, lengthy and pointless! So I think you are right to challenge curators. But I’m a little less dogmatic perhaps.
I hope you get a reply form the Tate soon. Ruffling their feathers is an entirely worthwhile thing to do. I shall try in the New Year to get up to London to see the Tate Britain collection hang.
Tessa Coe. Hampshire
- Brilliant letter Garry – much food for thought there for concerts too.Matthew Barley. Cellist. London
- May I use it in class? Am circulating it to everyone I can think of. Wonderful. Thank you. Warmest, warmest, warmest. And, again, THANK YOU!!!!!!!Alice Kingsnorth. University lecturer. California. USA
- Thank you so much for sharing this brilliantly articulated letter and further essay. It is a topic for further conversation and I want to re-read the essay when I have more time, but while Edward comments that you are swimming against the tide, I would think that you already have support and growing, although not yet mainstream.
I personally always try to digest an artwork (and its inherent intention) before any interpretation for all your reasons (i want a direct not an interpreted experience and often the intention in the work itself is different even from the artist’s).
I do the same when seeing an exhibition, i tend not to start slowly, work by work, instead I fairly quickly scope the whole exhibition and then come back to the beginning. That way I know the general context from the works themselves and also where i want to concentrate my time without any influence of interpretation, just looking at the works. I then think of things being in an axis of time/history (diachronic) and current context (synchronic), but want to be able to do this directly and without inflection. As you say, there is too much ‘noise’.
I think with things such as the impetus of mindfulness meditation and McGilchrist, your views are slowly catching on and will be more catered to in future, i am sure.
With my curator’s hat on i prefer to use discrete numbers or better still no wall tags at all but a room sheet with thumbnails to help identify each work and space to write notes.
There is an important role for interpretation and education but not at the expense of experience.
Sophie Cinnigham Dawe. Artist and curator. Winchester
- Well said Garry! I loved Alain de Botton’s vision of what a gallery could be in Religion for Atheists – did you read that? I’d love to see someone realise it…Nicki French Davis
Arts manager. Music curator. Journalist. Cork, Ireland
- I agree with the general idea that art must be experienced privately at a deep level but there are plenty of opportunities. I would say that another good thing would be to gradually raise the every day to the level of art by having beautiful design everywhere.
And, yes, it is irksome to be crowded out by other visitors or overwhelmed with curator info at the expenses of contemplation but it doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes one has a major gallery or painting to oneself especially in Europe.
The blockbuster nature of main London exhibitions is a money making thing and very successful but the serious person can find lots of fine art elsewhere or visit in the early morning or another quieter time.
Briony Kapoor. Curator. Kent
- Thank you for forwarding this to me and I look forward to hearing what transpires between you and Penelope Curtis. I have forwarded your e-mail to my daughter Hermione Wiltshire who is a friend of Penelope’s and is also a lecturer (and Fellow) of the Royal College of Art.
My own uneducated feeling is that many of us need to know a bit about the artist and probably appreciate the texts that go with the exhibition. Ideally we should do our homework first. I also feel that we all approach art slightly differently. It helps to know a bit about what we are about to see. We don’t always appreciate it emotionally.
My own experience and response has changed over the years. This year I visited the palace of Doria Pamphilji in Rome specifically to see Velasquez’s Red Pope, Innocent X. I have known it all my life from reproductions but I wasn’t prepared for the experience of physically seeing it. His malevolent glare is penetrating.
Lindy Wiltshire. Hampshire
The following is a correspondence between an old friend of mine and me (we were therefore allowed to be frank) who expressed a strong feeling against the ideas expressed in my open letters to Dr Curtis.
To be honest Garry, this strikes me as elitist drivel and I don’t agree with what you say. Part of the pleasure for me going to GOMA in Glasgow is to see families (of all different backgrounds and social groups), with children enjoying and talking about what they see. How do you know what the ‘tourists’ who go to our galleries get out of the visit? It may not be just to say they have been. Good for Dr Curtis for encouraging more people to go to art institutions if it broadens the horizons of some of those people. Do you really believe art is only for the ‘knowledgeable’ like you?
To be honest – you have not have read my letters closely. I am not against education in art. I’m all for it. I’m all for children getting involved – at all levels and from all classes. I am deeply supportive of free (I mean without paying) access to museums. However, in our museums and galleries these days the role of the educators and those who want more and more access for everyone at anytime have mucked up the actual nub of the experience of art for everyone – even those knowledgeable about art like me. And they do it from mindless government directives which demand that – or no funding. Which I have explained clearly. In this case I am elitist at a particular level. I wish the curators were. I have been to several ‘blockbuster’ shows recently and I cannot understand what people get out of them – the shuffling crowds of people plugged into headsets and reading catalogues while the work itself stands there in front of them unexamined. Mind you, it’s not possible to examine them under those conditions. And I do not go to museums to look at children having a fun time. As I don’t want children running around my feet in a concert or a play. I go for other reasons.
Repeating myself, I believe the education side of all this should happen but it should happen elsewhere and not get in the way of people – anyone – appreciating the work. Which they cannot do in the atmosphere which the crowd-pullers, the box-tickers create in the name of accessibility.
I think what you have written is not drivel but seems to say something worse than me. Yours is the exclusive position. You seem to say that all museums should be open to all, at all times. That excludes all those who wish to give works of art attention in peace and quiet. It IS possible to divide the experiences on offer so that everyone is satisfied. It is not on offer at the moment. That is my argument.
I suppose we have to differ. I appreciate you want to enjoy art in a different environment than an open public showing, unfortunately in a public facility that everyone has paid for, people have the right to view it in any way they wish. Otherwise they will have to buy pieces themselves to enjoy exclusively, which of course many wealthy people do. Although the rich don’t always enjoy the art, as they buy it only for investment and deprive everyone of access. Blockbusters are special because they bring pieces from private collections into the public view.
I might use a headset because I want to understand the work of art and the painter better. If I didn’t, having others around with headsets and children doesn’t mean I can’t focus on and enjoy the works in a way that suits me. And if people only go into a gallery to escape the rain, that’s their right and they may still enjoy it and discover something along the way. Have you been to the theatre in Glasgow, where audience participation is a wonderful part of the experience?
I don’t think I misunderstood your point; it was more a reaction to the note of them and us, with us being better that piqued.
Good to debate after all.
I think you have misunderstood my proposals entirely but if I go on about it we will go round and round in circles. However – just one more shot.
Just think – when someone has wandered in out of the rain and been caught by something, or a child suddenly has the revelation that what is on the walls, seen through all the hubbub and razamataz, can actually communicate with them on a profound level about their dreams, terrors, loves, their feelings of life and death, their visions, that show the possibility of transporting them into other worlds of thought and feeling, when they have intuited that – where do they go? Where do they, who are the ones this open access is often quoted as being for, where do they go for the next bit, the serious bit, the wondrous bit, the place where things are treated as of real life importance and shown as such? Nowhere. There is nowhere for them to go.
I have asked not for galleries to be exclusive (as you have) but that all those who need to experience these things be treated according to their needs. My minimal request is expressed in my second letter. Surely with your experience in education you know how to timetable? Even in your terms, we have all paid our taxes. I for one feel short changed. For those of us involved in this game Seneca put it right – ‘True pleasure is a serious business’.