For the past few years, I have been extremely lucky to work on some really wonderful projects, with millions of customers, a healthy user community, and a very good karma for the service they provide to the world. I've been paid to spend up to half of my time working on those projects. And yet, these projects never made a penny. I've been working in the strange world of open source / free software.
Framing the masterpiece, between the bus stop and the four white walls
March 6, 2009
<blockquote cite="http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Banksy"><p style="margin-bottom:.3em;">Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums.</p>
Banksy – Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall
I would love to side with Banksy here. He has a point: art at a bus stop has a mathematically greater chance of touching more people than would a museum (minus perhaps the millions-a-year ilk of the Louvre). The bus stop also shelters a lot of people with a potential to be inspired by art – unlike the jaded artgoer, already taught that art is important and thus seen chin-stroking in front of a Rothko.
Put a Rothko under plexiglas at a bus stop: no-one will even bat an eyelash at it. Not even the aforementioned chin-stroker, who doesn’t necessarily have the right sensitivity to appreciate or recognise the painting. Education and a conviction that art matters is not enough. Neither will the non-artsy bus-goers.
Not convinced? Ask Joshua Bell, thought to be the best violinist of our age, about his little gig in a Washington Metro station: “
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.” Bell was out of his context, a masterpiece without a frame.
This story is getting old now – almost two years old as I write this, but it has been gnawing at a side of my mind on a regular basis. Was it enlightening, or full of self-righteous bias? I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Neither did the authors of the article themselves, concluding (with Kant and with panache) that there wasn’t much to be inferred from their small study on humanity. Bell just was out of context, a masterpiece without a frame.
What reminded me of the Josh Bell story was my reading of an essay by Antoni Tàpies called “Nothing is Paltry”. Tàpies, painter and thinker, thinks that we have lost the ability to look, and that perhaps there is something to be learned in the Japanese mystique around sacred, beautiful arteftacts shown only on special occasions, with a solemn ritual that ensures it is given proper attention. Context matters. The frame matters.
Is the bus stop a proper frame for some art? It probably depends on the art. Just as Rothko would be shunned at the bus stop, Banksy’s provocations would be obscenely out of place in between impressionist paintings (or actually… why not?).
Does all this reflection point, eventually, towards museums as guarantors of “proper” presentation? keeping us, the alien “visitors”, appropriately far from art, close enough for awe, distant enough for veneration.
Museums too often don’t “get it” and stay stuck in their ideological dualism of the curator and visitor. Too often galleries fail to invent any scheme to save us from the drabness of the “four white walls”. And I hate the “four white walls” with as much passion as I embrace attempts to showcase art in smart, enchanting narrative spaces. Museums and galleries have either not enough money, or not enough imagination to reinvent themselves. But if Tàpies is right, if the little study on humanity done by the Washington Post teaches us anything, it is that we are not quite rid of galleries and museums yet.
Before the 20th century, travel was slow: months on a boat or on roads. Travel was the hardships of migration for most, formative fun for the well off, and adventure for novel heroes. Then came a century of wars and population displacement. But between those wars, a few strange things happened. The 1930s saw the invention of paid vacation, and thus, mass tourism.