Are museums bad at telling us why art matters?

Last night, in London’s Saatchi Gallery, a roomful of people watched a heated panel debate on the subject of museums. And also the state of arts in Britain, how art is displayed and consumed, ‘class confidence’ and shoeboxes. It was an unusual night; the latest intelligence² debate, with six panellists putting forward arguments for and against the motion, Museums are bad at telling us why art matters. Moderated by Tim Marlowe, it was an all-star line-up: popular philosopher Alain de Botton, Art Safari presenter Ben Lewis and former Labour advisor, now Chief Executive of the RSA Matthew Taylor for the motion; art writer Matthew Collings, Director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon, and Director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne against.

Alain de Botton began, delivering what Marlowe termed a “characteristically pithy” thesis supporting the motion. Academia pigeon-holes art into centuries, schools and trends, he argued, whereas a more poetic categorisation could prove more fulfilling for viewers. He posited that when religion tells us what art is for, “to make us feel the great truths that we know as cliches but need reminding of”, it has great power. We all believe in virtues – kindness, family, love, nature – and we need a new framing device to show our art. Why not open a ‘gallery for love’, a ‘gallery for courage’, and so on?

Matthew Collings shot down the theory immediately. Museums exist to offer neutrality, he thundered, an environment in which many readings are encouraged; isolating qualities and virtues would be reductive. Neutrality also serves a visual purpose: like is put with like to allow us to consider only relevant differences. Contemporary art galleries, he concluded, are about a plurality of meanings and approaches – but neutrality fits the art of the past: “With the art of the present, we take our chances”.

The language of art is now so confused that it can no longer differentiate between good and bad, offered Ben Lewis. “Most of us would agree that art matters when it’s good, and longlasting”, whereas “contemporary art has become part of a marketing opportunity”. Museums have become weak in comparison to lenders, artists and celebrity culture, he concluded. Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon provided a passionate direct response to Lewis, defending the piece of art constructed from a shoebox that Lewis had targeted in his attack: “Art has got to be an experience, rather than a discourse.” With the utilisation of readymades in the art world, he said, beginning of course with Marcel Duchamp and his urinal, implementation (making it work) became as valid an approach as execution (making a work).

Matthew Taylor’s contribution was less thesis, more call to arms. “Art urgently needs to play a role to help us through these difficult times,” he began, delivering the two statements he felt would be most important for our future: “We cannot have a better future as a human race if we don’t change the way we think, and behave”; and “Human beings are deeply deluded. We’re very bad at knowing what will make us happy”. We need “a substantive and ethical debate about the kind of future we want”, which is “an era of eudaumonic constructivism”. That first word means ‘conducive to happiness’, and the second that humans gather meaning from combining their experiences and ideas. Taylor’s succint conclusion was, “if we are unable to answer these sorts of questions, we’re fucked”. Sandy Nairne’s calm and tolerant response was to point out that, “Museums and galleries are good because they organise space”, “they are created so that we look at works of art and they matter to us”, and of course that “we do have the choice of time” when visiting such establishments.

Social media proved central to audience questions. Lewis enthused that “the social network of art is just about to start”, while an audience member asked why with, with 360,000 fans on Facebook, Tate felt the need to prove that its art mattered anyway? “You already have a very loyal and convinced audience”. Taylor worried that “young people perceive art as being a lifestyle choice”, whereas the experience should be that “When you go to a gallery, you should feel that you are being grabbed by the throat and told, this stuff is what you need to understand who you are”.

The motion was defeated by a vote, although narrowly, and by the end of the debate it hardly mattered. Both arguments had power, and both propelled the idea that talking about art is at least a start. It still matters, and it always will, and it needs protection. So whether you follow Taylor’s command to tear down exhibits that displease you, or side with Dercon’s opinion that conversations are enough for art to provoke, the overriding message is: have an opinion, and keep going to enjoy art.

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Are museums bad at telling us why art matters?