The Solitary Art of Appreciation
Self, Will, New Statesman (1996)
I wonder what the collective term is for a crowd of aesthetes. There must be one, although I've been unable to find it- answers on a card but make sure there's a work of great art on the obverse. It's counterintuitive, isn't it? The idea of appreciating the beautiful and the specific in an ugly mass of people who become, inevitably, similar - if not indistinguishable - purely by that act alone. Yet, given the vast crowds that the top art exhibitions attract, there ought to be some way to make the collective -appreciation of art enjoyable.
Tate Britain, which is running an exhibition of the great 19th-century showman-dauber John Martin, has gone some way towards re-creating the crowd spectacle that his works represented in their heyday. There is one room dedicated to the great triptych of paintings depicting the Apocalypse, the Last Judgement and the New Jerusalem. Bleachers have been erected and there's a nifty son et lumiere to give you a sense of how Victorian sensation-seekers might have responded to the images. But this is a recherche experience: Martin's works were the disaster movies of an era before disaster movies.
No, the big art exhibitions of today have acquired a weird rubric all their own, one that seems increasingly fraught and unpleasant. I know I'll be accused of snobbery - but hear me out. Take the Leonardo show at the National Gallery: it's now too late for you to book online but you can chip up in person and queue for three hours (venue's own warning) in order to buy a timed ticket that allows you entry during an allotted half-hour segment. True, once inside, you can linger as long as you want-but in practice how long will that be, given that the hot press of bodies is hardly conducive to gentle contemplation of the old master's brushwork, if you can see it at all?
What a croc
I know galleries are concerned about this -how to juggle the intense desire the masses have to see a show with the misery of too dense a press. Presumably, in the bowels of the National Gallery there's an expert on fluid dynamics and laminar flow whose speciality it is to determine how long an individual will contemplate a painting and how that will affect the movement of the art-chomping crocodil through the hallowed chambers. I often fantasise that the crowd will react en masse counterintuitively to the announcement of a big exhibition and stay away in droves, leaving it blissfully empty for me to wander on my ownsome. …