On a recent trip to Vienna I discovered the delights of an upmarket McDonalds (McCaron anyone?), public transport which was efficient and even reliable, and exhibitions so bold I was actually required to think. I truly had left London behind.
In the heart of the MuseumsQuartier I stumbled, quite by accident, upon the KunstHalle. I was drawn in by the prospect of an exhibition entitled ‘Vanity’ which displayed fashion photography over the years. However, being told that I could gain admittance to the other exhibition it was showing for a mere extra euro my attempts to appear European and cool were abandoned and the miserly student in me came out; I bought the ticket for both.
I must admit that I had turned my nose up at the posters for ‘No fashion, please!’, assuming that as a third year Art History student I would have little interest in a weird little photography exhibition. I had pictured Vienna in Imperial splendour with a few Secessionist paintings to stand in for the cutting edge (and with Ultravox blaring at every corner if I’m being entirely honest). Thus, I was not quite prepared for what I saw as I confidently strode into the exhibition; for what greeted me was genitalia. This was genitalia so explicit and clear that even Gustav Klimt would have blushed.
Not to be defeated, higher minds and all that, I persevered, and, as I went through the exhibition I tumbled down from my pedestal. The exhibition claimed to be about photography between gender and lifestyle. What I saw was the delicate evocation of life, death and beauty. However, what I thought was ‘you wouldn’t find any of this in the Tate Modern!’
I am not inherently against the Tate Modern, and its exhibitions offer invaluable opportunities to view ‘great’ and famous art in Britain. My issue is that it panders to popularity, where curating should be challenging it is herding. It’s like going to see ‘The Artist’ at the cinema, but finding the reel has been replaced with ‘Rocky III’. It is formulaic, sycophantic, and worst of all boring. The average visitor seems to pay greater critical attention to the contents of Topshop, Tescos and the TV guide, content to be guided in their large crowds, with the occasional wall text to anchor and reassure them.
Herein lies the problem. The availability of the modern museum has not elevated the cultural expectations of its visitors, but limited its own cultural power. It has become domesticated rather than didactic. We are supplied all of the answers without checking if the questions are even right. The more we are shown of these types of exhibitions the less inquisitive and open-minded we become. Whilst some more controversial artists such as Takashi Murakami and Tracey Emin have shown in major London galleries recently, there is nothing like a famous name to persuade an unsuspecting public of quality. There seems to be more prestige attached to the genitals they produce than those of a lesser known Viennese artist. So, the problem is not that we are prudes, but snobs and lazy ones at that.
The problem is us. I didn’t even mean to see the exhibition initially, and had it been a family holiday I can confidently say that it would not have been on the agenda. Yet, there the exhibition was; in the middle of ‘the institution’ and over the road from the Natural History Museum.
Happily, the solution also lies with us. We must no longer enter museums and allow curators to do the thinking for us, nor smugly make claims of our visits to our friends and Twitter followers as though simply visiting was on a par with creating one of the works inside. We need to enter museums with open and active minds. So much is easy in the modern world; I can contact friends, write my essays and order food through the same device. So, the ability to engage with art on a personal level must not be lost.
Don’t worry though, if we get tired from this we can always switch off and enjoy the mind-numbing activities of the Lizard, the new series of The Only Way is Essex, or even the Tate Modern.
Image – Polly Warrack