‘It is not given to everyone to bathe in the multitude; to take pleasure in the crowd is an art. Multitude, solitude: equivalent and interchangeable terms for the active and fecund poet. He who does not know how to populate his solitude, does not know either how to be alone in a busy crowd.’
Charles Baudelaire, ‘Les Foules’ (The Crowds, 1869)
How beautiful, how tempting, how challenging Baudelaire’s words are to the modern flâneur confronted by contemporary crowds – and how frustrating. The temptation is to cast oneself adrift on the tide of the masses so as to make a desert island of oneself in their midst. The challenge is discovering if one is detached enough, artful enough, to actually convert multitude into solitude. But frustration, bordering on despair, comes with the recognition that – whether one is temperamentally suited to such poetic alchemy or not – the crowds Baudelaire luxuriated in are on the verge of extinction, as the 20th century he predicted slides into a 21st century even Jules Verne barely imagined.
Take the holiday rush as the harshest test of that reality. Not just the mad stampede into superstores but, increasingly, a similar swarming of the cultural institutions that have come to resemble them. This frantic influx is prompted by ad campaigns as aggressive as those of chain-merchandisers, making it obvious that they are as dependent on the year-end ‘gate’ surge as the shops are on bumper receipts between Thanksgiving and Boxing Day. That commerce strategically encroaches on concert- and gallery-goers at every turn is nothing new, though the degree to which ‘educational’ sites such as catalogue reading rooms function as antechambers for the bazaars that insistently bracket the spaces of art is ever more obvious.
Nor is the great milling about of shoppers (in a museum context they are viewers) necessarily cause for dismay among would-be flâneurs. On the contrary, it can be exhilarating, especially to neurasthenics seeking the heat of other ‘bodies electric’ and the exemplary calm of inward souls who have somehow centred themselves in the hurly-burly. No, the trouble in Paradise – where multitude once morphed into solitude – is the inexorable logic of ‘crowd management’ to which every sign and didactic label, corridor and door width, lobby and gallery dimension, security checkpoint and sales point, moving walkway, escalator and exit indicator conforms.
One would be tempted to say that the contemporary museum is a machine for ‘slipping glimpses’ – to misappropriate Willem de Kooning’s famous description of his painting, while noting that the essence of appreciating his work consists in looking hard and long at what he captured in a blink of the eye and the flick of a wrist. But, in truth, the mechanisms in play are horridly like those of a sci-fi monster that ingests people in great gulps, pumps them peristaltically through its digestive tract in a semi-delirious state, and then flushes them out the other end with their pockets lighter and with almost no memory of their ‘museum experience’ other than a mild anaesthetic hangover. In short, one leaves the halls of culture much as one does a colonoscopy clinic.
Oddly enough, I found a vivid contrast to this type of viewership in Austria in the bulbously futuristic, almost stomach-shaped Kunsthaus Graz. It is one of the Diaspora of well-run small-to-medium-sized museums that take risks and give one hope. (The mild-mannered but ever-alert Peter Pakesch heads it up.) The occasion was an ambitious and quirky pair of group shows that mix film and video seen in darkness with paintings seen in bright light: ‘Screening Real’ with Bruce Conner, Sharon Lockhart and Andy Warhol; and ‘Painting Real’ with Warhol, Barnett Newman and Christopher Wool. As is customary, a panel was convened to puzzle over the questions raised by this deliberately provocative combination.
The best of the speakers was a young curator and critic named Elke Krasny who began her presentation by explaining that she had taken three days away from her normal life to see the paintings as well as every minute of the Conner, Lockhart and Warhol footage, thereby contradicting her theoretical contention that the space/time dynamics of film and video in a museum setting are fundamentally different from those of painting because they challenge contemplation whilst paintings invite it. Krasny’s acknowledged inspiration was the German conceptual conjurer Boris Groys, whose operating premise was that to be contemporary was to be not just ‘in’ time but ‘with’ time – in short, time’s ‘comrade’. It was an elegant post-Soviet conceit, deftly manipulated by Krasnay. And, in the largely vacant spaces of the exhibitions, it was easy to be the leisurely comrade of time and the sociable companion of the phantom viewers in the ‘black cube’ and fully visible ones in the ‘white cube’ of the Kunsthaus. But who is a comrade in our contemporary Death Star museums? Not time, not space, not fellow force-marched ‘consumers’ – and certainly not art.
First published in Issue 129