Carsten Holler slides at Tate Modern

Carsten Holler’s slides installed in the Tate’s Turbine Hall (image via (click to enlarge)

Ossian Ward has a feature in Art in America this month about the dismaying trend of bigness in the contemporary art world. The piece is an exploration of a problem that’s only been growing (no pun intended): art as a series of bigger and better spectacles, upstaged only by the vast and cavernous spaces in which it’s shown. (Ward cleverly refers to this as the “Turbine Hall effect.”)

Though the article is quite smart and thorough, it left me a little unsatisfied: I think Ward stops short of really digging into what’s at stake here. What exactly is the problem with art as entertainment, anyway? It may seem like an obvious question, but given its centrality to this discussion, it’s one worth asking.

In Ward’s piece, he quotes art historian Hal Foster talking about his book, The Art-Architecture Complex. Foster says:

“So rather than the old virtue … whereby one is made reflexive about a body in space, there’s a way in which much architecture now wants to overwhelm you as a body in space, to use the space to overwhelm you.”

This sentiment is dead on, but it applies to more than just to the new, grand starchitectural spaces — it also applies to the art inside them.

The problem with art as entertainment is that it privileges the “Wow” factor over everything else. Standing inside many an Olafur Eliasson installation, you’re delighted, you’re impressed, you take a picture of yourself looking yellow (see my Hyperallergic author photo). But you don’t think about it all too much. Of course there’s a chance you might, when you go home, but the art itself doesn’t encourage thinking. Rather, it privileges emotional response — particularly the feeling of being impressed and awed — over understanding; in other words, passive consumption versus active.

Often, this is because the ideas behind the work aren’t actually that interesting or substantial. Carsten Holler putting a slide in a museum is fun, definitely, but once the novelty wears off, there’s not much left to grasp onto.

Richard Serra sculpture

Inside a Richard Serra sculpture at Gagosian Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Partly this is a problem of exchange: big, spectacular artworks don’t invite viewers to interact with them. But wait — you might say — riding a slide is interaction. Physically, yes, but intellectually, no. There’s no exchange of ideas, no questions that the artist is posing to viewers. The physical interaction is a decoy for a lack of mental stimulation. And many times these big, spectacular artworks are, as Ward points out in his piece, mass gatherings centered around ephemeral experience. There’s no chance for investigation or intimacy.

But big doesn’t have to be bad. Although he gets a lot of flack for the scale of his work, I’d use Richard Serra as an example of big art done right. Wandering through the vertiginous spaces created by his steel forms, you can admire their changing colors, ponder their materiality, and even, when the guard isn’t looking, run your fingers across the stubbly surface. You can be awed and thoughtful, all at once.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

31 replies on “The Problem with Big Art”

  1. I’ve gone off in the past on people only wanting art to be pretty or enjoyable.  Looks like I need to add “being impressed by the scale instead of the content” to that list too.

  2. Excellent points — especially “it privileges emotional response — particularly the feeling of being impressed and awed — over understanding; in other words, passive consumption versus active.”

    In the case of Holler and Eliasson, the dazzle factor subverts the viewer’s sense of vulnerability, which prevents the spectacle from resonating as an internal experience. It makes it safe, which makes it entertainment.  

    To enter one of Serra’s steel torques is to grapple with the anxiety of ambiguous space. It digs into an emotional spot that few large-scale artworks can hit.

    1. Yes, I think your point about it being safe and therefore entertainment is a great one. And thank you for inadvertently pointing out a typo, which I will now fix!

  3. In some cases size does matter, but for the most part, in regards to visual art, the statement “if you cannot do it well make it big” is applicable.

  4. My first thought was “no, the problem with big art is that its expensive to produce and many artists who make it only get enough to cover the cost of materials and fabrication because there are so few spaces that can accommodate big art”  #notbitter
    Seriously, you raise good points which I agree with in spirit, but given the challenge of contemporary art being able to engage the majority at all (even to invite the ‘my five year old could do that’ comment) – isn’t there some value in ‘WOW’?  

    The major problem of the contemporary is contempt of the public is normative, so I see some promise in at least getting the average citizen to admire art, because isn’t that the first step towards fostering a genuinely critical view?

    1. I definitely see your point, Peter, but personally I think it’s a bit of a slippery slope. While I’d love to get more people in the door, I’m not sure it justifies art as spectacle. Maybe I’m naive or overly idealistic, but I think there have to be other ways to draw people in. As I said, I don’t think all big art is bad, but I think it has to work much harder to be good. Just trying to wow the average uninformed viewer doesn’t seem like a valid end goal.

      1. I am curious. Who put Jillian Steinhauer in charge of justifying anything, let alone art and what it is to each person individually?  I don’t think you’re being overly idealistic or naive, I think you’re being dry, academic, and a prig.  Get over it.  Emotional response in this day and age over a physical experience not associated with a keyboard or handheld device is becoming more rare.  I welcome the chance at discovering it at such venues, or on the street.  The fact that it’s happening this way is a statement of our contemporary culture and its remove of actual experience. We need, it seems, to be told what to do and think and feel.  That’s what came over me as I slid down the slides.  That’s what came over me as I watched a misty rainbow form inside of a gallery space.  

        ps: love your “slippery slope” pun.

        1. I’m not convinced by the oft-repeated argument that we need art to overwhelm us just because we use keyboards and devices a lot now. Art has been provoking emotional responses since the beginning of time (if it hadn’t been, no one would’ve cared about it), and I don’t think that just because we use computers a lot we’ve become drones. Emotional response is important and necessary—in fact it’s really the essential starting point—but I think the best art gives you BOTH that and something to chew on, something to think about, some ideas.
          But no one put me in charge of anything, Max! I decided to write something, as writers are wont to do.

          1. Worth mentioning, perhaps, that human art–or at least, artifice/artfulness/architecture–has also been realized on a large scale since the beginning of time…from Gobekli Tepe, to Stonehenge, to Qin Shi Huang’s vast terra cotta army, to more examples than a layman like myself has probably ever heard of… 🙂

            A recent trend, perhaps, But spectacle doesn’t strike me as a particularly “new” device for eliciting an emotional response from an audience, no?

            (Or maybe my examples aren’t relevant. I dunno. Just a thought.)

        2. Thanks for this article Jillian.  Max, Jillian is not in charge of anything;
          rather, she is a valuable filter for art appreciation.  Namely, she has obviously viewed and thought
          deeply about art for awhile, so people can feel comfortable reading her opinions
          about art. (A harmful filter would be someone who does not do any deep
          thinking, but gives opinions.)  In this
          instance, she provides a valuable point that viewers should reflect on when
          engaged by a piece that creates awe through its size: Am I engaged by the
          artist’s unique take on life, or am I merely distracted by something
          large?  In the end, someone that reads
          this piece may have a more meaningful experience when they view art.  They might even recognize something as
          creating a superficial excitement, discount it, and then reflect on something
          smaller in scale where the artist shared his or her soul.  

      2. I’m reacting to two separate points here: the presumption of intention, or lack thereof, based on our own reactions; and the implied risks in engaging average uninformed viewers.

        While I agree that “Just trying to wow the average uninformed viewer doesn’t seem like a valid end goal”, I don’t believe that just wowing uninformed viewers is anyone’s end goal. 

        Your personal experience may have been that you were “just” wowed and nothing more, but what purpose does devaluing other’s reactions serve? The visceral experience of hurling down any slide can elicit all sorts of emotional and intellectual responses, doing so in a museum adds another layer of context. I am certain it provoked some fairly profound experiences. 

        Not too long ago I was chastised by a friend (who is a visual artist) because I stated that I liked Richard Serra’s work. His response to me was similar to yours in this article: How could anyone value work that does nothing more than try to impress with size? The answer is simple, we all come to a work of art with a unique set of experiences, and walk away with our own reactions: visceral, emotional, intellectual, profound, unimpressed, etc, etc, etc. 

        As for slippery slopes: I fear that many art forms are becoming so fringe that only practitioners and academics engage with it. This is not to say that artists need to make work that is accessible to all, but I think, we need to foster the ability to talk about the work in ways that are. We miss opportunities to engage wider audiences because they are made to feel inferior for liking what we deem to be meaningless.

  5. I think one aspect of this type of work that the article here misses, is the role of physicality in contemporary sculpture. In contrast to sitting at our laptops and experiencing art through pixels, sculpture today is more and more leaning towards taking on a corporeal function. These grand objects are compensating for the fact that we’re all reading blogs and scrolling through photos too often. This corporeal drive naturally invites scale.

    To say that it ‘privileges emotional response’ is to neglect that fact that sculpture can produce a valuable physical response in addition to mental. And why should one be more legitimate than the other?

    1.  I actually agree with you on a lot of sculpture, Max; this gets at what I was referring to with Serra. I think sculpture, which has a materiality and a corporeality that massive ephemeral light spectacles don’t, is often another matter. But I should say that, for me, good art produces a physical as well as a mental response. Often one follows the other, but having both is the sign of success.
      I’m curious, though, why you think the corporeal drive natural invites scale. Does it have to? Can you elaborate?

  6. I think this same conversation could be had about the ultra-small, the ultra-detailed, the ultra-labor-intensive.  Spectacle is often how you get folks in the door and brilliant, thoughtful art (like Serra) is hard to come by.  I also think putting a slide in a museum is funny and thought provoking.  In considering what a slide suggests, I have already started to think about what that might say about museums as stodgy or elitest, or as adult playgrounds.  A trip on a slide might change your mood and in turn, change the way you might experience other works in the museum.

    Great Article!

  7. “passive consumption versus active” rings something in me. yes, be watchful for that. on the other hand, “ideas behind the work” sets off some bit of discontent. idea art is great, love it. just, i wouldn’t want it to be privileged–as it often is–over art that doesn’t care about, or maybe know about, its ideas. 

    1. I’m all for art that doesn’t know about its ideas! But art that doesn’t have any…to me that’s different. =)

  8. It may be a true or false assumption that All Art good and the not so good has existed within the larger context of culture community etc.   Which came first the Chicken or the Egg.  So much of the Contemporary Art ‘Market’ attempts to have it both ways, all ways, and  at extravagant cost….  Much like wealth power and influence (media) etc….  Nothing new here or really very deep.   It occurs to me much like the King’s New Clothes… You know the concept, it is pretty old.  Can any of this scale or spectacle or intellectualization really hide the emptiness of it.  We have all had moments in our lives of being deeply and humanly moved touched and inspired by a work of art a loved one a hero etc…  Great Art has never been easy to come by and we can certainly argue what that might be, but in this voracious all ‘consuming’ culture of bigger better harder faster more…. we will get what we get and truth be told will any of this last or is it just something to talk about and pass the time?
    The other comments are great….
    Thanks for reading this.

  9. The problem is that most art critics aren’t good writers.  They raise interesting points no doubt but since their writing is bad their critiques become just more white noise.

      1. If an art critic’s writing doesn’t show talent that is equal to or more than that of the artists they cover then they aren’t critics but simply opinionated writers.

  10. Some entertainment extends into the sphere of art, such as art house movies. These cases usually elicit self-referential contemplation. For me, the greater the art the longer this contemplation lasts. I am still contemplating the first time I experienced Richard Serra’s work at DIA Beacon a decade ago.

    On the other hand there is “art” that falls more into the entertainment sphere, like a sugar high with nothing left to contemplate after the spectacle runs its course and the intellect crashes empty. I feel this way often after experiencing a piece by Koons or Hirst. My only contemplation is about whether the artist was even present.

    Maybe Ossian Ward is onto a sea change in what the art market has wrought. Denis Dutton, in his book “The Art Instinct” has some interesting ideas along these lines, of a sea change, with the theory that art is a seductive mystery that instinctively draws us in to continued contemplation.

  11. I love Rothko’s response to his critics, who accused him of this very “size over substance” tactic in his work:

    “I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is
    painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them,
    however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.
    To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience,
    to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing
    glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t
    something you command!”

    Another artist quote (can’t remember who its by), this time sarcastic rather than defensive: “When in doubt, make it big and paint it red.”

    Radical shifts in scale and perspective are crucial in our formative comprehension of the world; as infants, nothing thrills us more than a sudden change in height (perspective) or size (scale). This thrill continues into adulthood, and we seek it out both in rudimentary rushes of adrenaline from extreme sports, high speed vehicles, or drugs, and in complex forms: radical shifts in our understanding of life in the form of illuminations, epiphanies and the most literal, radical shift of all – falling in love (it doesn’t have to be romantic, but it does have to evoke the sudden shift in perspective – the fall – and the blanket shift in scale – being overwhelmed.)

  12. You can also use Richard Serra’s work as a giant brass instrument. Try whistling or singing in one of those things.

  13. I think the intellectual is overrated and I suspect that’s why so much of contemporary art is boring and ugly. I’m with Matt Calvacecchia: the slide is about location and attitude and POV and experience all at once. Big things, small things, they can all be accused of wowing the viewer. But I say: good. I want to be wowed. Visually. Physically. Intellectually. Politically. Philosophically.

    What’s better? Well, what’s better, the subtle intellect and incredible lyric beauty of an early Cindy Sherman, or a total emersion in yet another technical miracle of an Olafur Eliasson installation? It depends on why you want to know.

  14. Big has many practical/esthetic issues.Its just that much harder to get what you want. One of the reasons the rise of Minimalism and the ABILITY to fabricate the esthetic works hand and glove. Unfortunately the “look” has become what some are seeing as the Corporate Model or Trade Show Bling 

  15. This is familiar territory, touched on quite nicely by James Myer in his Summer 2004 Artforum article, “No more scale: the experience of size in contemporary sculpture.” What’s evident – both then and now – is that museums continue to laugh of the continued salience of scale as a component of phenomenological inquiry, celebrating, instead, size as a prerequisite for increasingly selective forms of corporate sponsorship.

    Georgina Adam, in her 25 July 2011 Art Newspaper article, “Size matters. Why is the work getting bigger?,”puts it bluntly, “Big works […] are exactly what many of today’s alpha collectors want. With the growth of private museums, they have space fo fill and the means to do so. They also want works with huge visual impact: contemporary art spaces, be they private or public, need to grip visitors, give them an ‘experience’ and send them away thinking ‘wow!’ Size is one of the ways of achieving this.”
    Fortunately, Maaike
 Lauwaert, and others like her are giving visibility to the often less visible side of things – idenitfying how small, not large, comprise the vibrant, teeming loam of the art ecology.

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