The Problem with Big Art

Carsten Holler slides at Tate Modern
Carsten Holler's slides installed in the Tate's Turbine Hall (image via flickr.com/Leeks) (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.

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