An idiotic approach to art: about blockbuster exhibitions

In a 2001 article, art critic Jonathan Jones spoke of an 'idiotic approach to art' in reference to blockbuster exhibitions. A reflection on the topic.

“Blockbuster exhibitions encourage an idiotic approach to art. We think we have the best possible opportunity to see a certain artist or a certain art-historical period, we think that by seeing an exhibition on Jackson Pollock or Botticelli, we will know everything about these artists, and we will have a complete experience about them. But this is an attitude that always has something pretentious and false about it.” So expressed Jonathan Jones, journalist and art critic for the Guardian, on January 1, 2001, in an article of his that, given its contents, we can still consider to be of stringent relevance.

In recent years we have literally been overwhelmed by unrepeatable events, by the ostentations of great masterpieces, by opportunities we will no longer have. The idea of gathering together jumbles of “masterpieces” for the mere purpose of astonishing and exciting the visitor, often unaware that those works, to be there at the exhibition, have taken serious risks, is an old, outdated idea. Let’s try to imagine, Jones tells us, that some masterpieces, such as Sandro Botticelli’s Venus, Giorgione’s Tempest and Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation, leave their locations to be gathered in one place. It has happened before, in 1930 to be exact, when these cornerstones of our art history, along with many other paintings, were shipped on a merchant ship bound for England for an exhibition that was held in London and that was strongly desired by Benito Mussolini. The Duce wanted to use art as a propaganda tool, and he ordered museums to loan works that would otherwise never move from the rooms in which they were located. Today, fortunately, we have left fascism behind, but the idea of moving great works of art for exhibition-shows occasionally flashes through the minds of some tightrope walker curator.

Blockbuster exhibitions are based on a logic that is always recognizable, now also quite easily. They are preceded by massive marketing campaigns that present the exhibition as a one-time event, and that attract the public by instilling in them an urgent need to visit the show, because otherwise that masterpiece, now displayed in a provincial Italian town, will leave to return to the United States, or France, or England. And presenting the exhibition as something urgent is, according to Jones, the biggest lie, especially where the marketing of the exhibition insists on emotions: you cannot rush thelove of art; love is a feeling that needs its own time.

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We also recognize blockbuster exhibitions because they always feature the same artists. Let’s take an artist that Jones also mentions in his piece: Jan Vermeer. An artist about whom little is known, a difficult artist, but also an artist who is able to appeal to the public in a direct way, with images of which everyone is able to give a first, simple reading based on mere visual data. A portrait, a genre scene or a landscape, after all, lend themselves much better to a blockbuster exhibition than a complicated mythological setting, or a religious episode, because they require far less effort to be interpreted, because they present easily recognizable situations or contexts, or because they recall situations familiar to the viewer. And it is no coincidence that all the artists to whom blockbuster exhibitions return (the Impressionists, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Gauguin... ) are those who best establish a direct relationship with the viewer of the work.

But let us return to Vermeer. To understand the extent of the blockbuster exhibition phenomenon, an interesting exercise is to count how many times Vermeer’s name has recurred in the title of an exhibition, held anywhere on the globe, in the past five years. Excluding the recently born category of one-work exhibitions, Vermeer’s name has appeared in the titles of fifteen exhibitions since 2010. All useful and necessary exhibitions? Is there really a need to put on at least three exhibitions a year that talk about Vermeer? And which, moreover, often do not add much that is new to what we already knew about the author, or fail to build a coherent path that makes the visitor leave with a little more information than they knew before entering the exhibition venue? This is why it is therefore disingenuous to present a blockbuster exhibition as something urgent and unrepeatable: because it is highly likely that that exhibition is nothing more than a repetition of a tried-and-true pattern.

Not to mention, then, that all this massive marketing peddling as must-see exhibitions that are always the same, in form and (little) substance, risks overshadowing those exhibitions that are truly must-see, either because they are research exhibitions that add new chapters in our knowledge of an artist or a period or a movement, or because they popularize new discoveries or because they offer interesting educational and popularizing paths and delve into aspects of an artist’s production (or aspects of an art-historical period, or theme) that the public would otherwise have no way of delving into as comfortably and with a coherent set of works that can support a thesis or promote a popularizing project. In short: there are also many excellent, quality exhibitions, but they often take a back seat and cause less discussion than those blockbuster exhibitions that have little or nothing to say.

There is, in essence, a tendency to turn art into an entertainment product. An operation that, mind you, is certainly not reprehensible in itself. There are many excellent pure entertainment products, especially where such products have educational purposes. So much so that the new term edutainment has been coined to refer to this category of cultural products. Think, for example, of exhibitions made with virtual reproductions, which allow people to take multimedia journeys through an artist’s works, or those exhibitions that integrate reconstructions of pieces of archaeology. The topic of edutainment is vast, is already the subject of specialized studies, and deserves in-depth studies that are beyond the scope of this post. So, returning to art as entertainment, one has to ask: Is it correct to pass off as culture a product that is quite obviously mere entertainment? And secondly, is it correct to put often delicate works of art at risk for entertainment products?

All this also has profound repercussions on our approach toart. Blockbuster exhibitions, Jones goes on to say, foster an experience of art that is fast, instantaneous, and above all that is organized by the direction of someone else’s eye. Especially where the marketing campaigns that promote blockbuster exhibitions leverage, as noted earlier, emotions. Which should be a private, personal matter: how is it possible to think that one can create an exhibition packaged with the purpose of emotion? Because a work that can excite me, can make someone else feel indifference, and vice versa. It is not possible to standardize emotions, and probably the attempt succeeds only where there is no real love for art, and where there is room for this need for emotion to be induced and not real. And a quick, instantaneous, and someone else-directed experience, if it is about art, is an experience not worth having.

We need to rediscover, Jones says, the ability to look at our relationship with art as a love affair: a love affair is something for which efforts and attempts are made, it is something that lasts over time, and it is as far from the logic of “all and sundry.” The relationship with art must be one of pleasure, of surprises, of new discoveries, even small and limited to our experience, but ours nonetheless. An orchestrated blockbuster exhibition that plays on pre-packaged emotions is a product that nullifies these pleasures.

After all, it is true that everyone should be enabled to understand art, in the simplest way possible. But it is also true that approaching art is difficult, because it is art that is not an easy subject. Art is for everyone, we always say that too here on Windows on Art: but those who approach art must know that art is something worth spending some time on. And if the passion for art finds fertile ground, there will be the conditions for it to grow more and more and never go away.

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