As painting shifted from its role as a window of illusion in the late nineteenth century to questioning its own nature, the gilt-edged frame broke down, the sculpture came down from its plinth and the surrounding space was implicated in the work. The walls, acting as an extension of the frame, became the church of the Modernist movement and then an indispensable counterpart to modern, postmodern and contemporary art.
The white cube has been a cornerstone of the changes in art that have occurred throughout the twentieth century. In its first phase it provided a sacred place for the Modernist artwork that then, in hindsight, acted as a womb for the contemporary artwork. In its second it actively facilitated the artist in the exploration of myriad new ways to make art.
The marriage of the work with its context has had far reaching implications. The designation of the white cube as the art objects’ ideal context has enriched the practice of the contemporary artist enormously. The cube and the contemporary artwork are now co-dependent but this relationship took a long time to develop. As with all relationships first one element was in ascendancy then the other. This process was sometimes seen as negative sometimes as positive, a pendulum swing which currently seems to have reached a balance of sorts. This dissertation asked what the role of the white cube plays in the contemporary artwork. The answer is, like the cube itself, multifaceted.
The white cube was elemental in the dematerializing of the art object. With the move into the three dimensions of the cube, the focus shifted from the art object to the relationships around it so the crafting of the object using a traditional skillset became unnecessary. The art object changed from being an independent object, to be admired as separate from the viewer, to a touchstone for a multitude of possible encounters and relationships.
When this shift happened, traditional skills were more or less jettisoned for a period as artists explored new possibilities and this changed the role of the artist. The artist became an instigator and a selector, arranging works, materials, events or presenting ideas in the space. The notion of selection and interpretation as elements of an artwork took hold. This in turn opened up the arts to whoever wanted to contribute.
This had both positive and negative effects. There is an argument that with the jettisoning of skills the door was opened to anyone to become an artist, that somehow the wall which the artist had tried to break down had finally collapsed and that now there was nothing to define art.
But with the collapse of the standard of values provided by a recognisable skillset, the white cube became the boundary that allowed us to identify something as art. In taking on this role it came to represent an art institution of many aspects, physical, metaphysical, cultural, sociological and as such has been invaluable to the artist who would critique this institution to the benefit of the culture and the individuals within it.
Furthermore traditional skills have not died. Painting continues to reinvigorate itself as does sculpture. In the 1970s, alongside the selection and use of eclectic media, older crafts have been resurrected, crafts that were often considered the province of the disabled, children or women.This meant that the artist has now a huge armory to access, that there are a variety of voices to be heard, not just those of an elite but those belonging to previously marginalized groups. It also meant that it was harder to judge quality in a work and that opened the way to an element of dilettantism. With every new movement in the arts, a new language has had to be developed to describe and understand it. In contemporary times the shifts have been so huge that it may take some time before we can identify the seminal artworks of these times. This does not mean that contemporary art is not relevant but that’s its pluralistic nature means it has wider and deeper implications than can be understood from one aspect or from one point in time. In time we may see that the explorations of the intrepid artists who trusted the process enough, who eschewed immediate recognition for genuine questioning, have granted us insight into a complex present and an intimidating future.
The shift in the nature of the art object also created more responsibility for the viewer. A visitor to an exhibition of contemporary art now has to work to interpret art, they become part of it. The chance to be part of the work, to be forced to think, to consider, can only have good implications for the culture.
In De La Cruz’s Larger Than Life, the artwork in the form of the traditional canvas, came off the wall and expanded into the space, using painting itself as a signifier, enabling it, to comment on a wide range of issues around art and the artist’s role to art in our culture. The breaking down of the traditional skillset which saw the introduction of concept into the artwork, which opened art up to participants other than the white male elite, the reinstatement of traditional art through the use of appropriation combined with the signifiers of the white cube allowed De La Cruz, a woman, to produce an artwork that drew on traditional and Modernist painting and conceptual ideas. These developments could not have happened without the extra dimension and the protectiveness of the walls of the white cube. In the process the cube itself became a factor.
With Urs Fischer’s You, the cube becomes the focus of the artists’ actions. The meaning it has gathered to it, the roles it has played, enable the viewer to interpret the work in a number of ways. You shows us how powerful a cypher the cube is, that we can undermine it, tear it down, and not only does it survive but becomes stronger. It is possible to see the naked strength of the cube that became the sole definer of a vast diversity of art. While Fischer attacked the walls physically, Fraser used the signifiers of the cube, elegantly and eloquently, to ask the spectator to consider the gaps in society between the have and have nots. In the absence of an artwork, or any physical intervention at all, one may question the artists’ role. But works like this can inspire the spectator to think of the makeup of their culture and the value of this can be applicable by that spectator in their own lives. What is art except something that is supposed to enrich our lives? Conceptual work makes the viewer a part of that which enriches. Through Maurizio Cattelan we get a wider view of the contemporary artist’s role, the role of selection and context in the artwork and a critique of the Modernist canon. Through upending his own work and his own role he is ploughing a rich and fertile field, drawing on developments of the previous century, adapting them and scattering ideas as he goes.
The white cube has simultaneously activated the artwork and been accused of smothering it, faded into the background while becoming a vigorous element in the creation and perception and interpretation of art. For the artist it is a laboratory for experimentation, a safe place for edgy new art, the target for exploration and weapon for critique. It is the indispensable ‘other’ in the artists’ actions, an arena for the acting out of a multitude of relationships between the artist and the artwork, the viewer and the space itself. The white cube has proved a flexible counterpart to the physical artwork and an arena and a metaphor for more ephemeral work. While it is to some a tomb (Smithson), a dead space, it still inspired artists to set up shop as Claes Oldenburg did or flee out into the desert as the Land Artists did. Even the rise of the alternative space implies it’s opposite: the pristine gallery. The cavernous ragged warehouse or the old factory echoes the white cubes’ laboratory like demeanor, the place of presentation of the finished object harks back to the studio.
On a larger stage, the white cube represents western elitism while providing a counterweight for those artists who seek to change the status quo. It is a tool of the market, a representative of capitalism while in its very church like demeanor affects to be above ‘all-that’ (cite). In the cube, relationships between multiple elements, be they in the shape of people (the artists, the viewer, the curator, the collector), place (past, present, and future), ideologies (ideas, theories, beliefs) continuously move and shift, swapping places, gaining and losing ascendancy spinning on a fulcrum provided by first one element then another. The white cube provides a crucible as well as an ‘other’, an essential différance in the kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional process we now call art. Its innumerable aspects are often paradoxical, for the cube is a conundrum. It is at once real and imaginary, a concept and a physical reality. An understanding of it seems to be impossible to grasp in its entirety. Once we think we understand it, its meaning slithers away. In a pluralistic world the cube manages to provide the most paradoxical of things: an indefinable touchstone, a boundary-less entity, solid ground that shifts constantly beneath our feet.
From the standpoint of the early twenty-first century, it is possible to get the beginning of an overview of all the aspects of the white cube-negative, positive, ambiguous- and see them as part of a whole. One thread still unspooling, is in the arena of the amateur artist. When craftsmanship took a back seat to new possibilities in the professional art world, in the amateur world, the anything goes attitude to skill trickled down but often not much else. The traditional formats of painting and sculpture were maintained but conceptual aspects have been bypassed. For instance the ‘bad painting’ of the professional world, with its conceptual applications and developed visual language, has been interpreted in the amateur world as a license to create merely bad painting. It is the artifying power of the white cube gives amateur work of this stripe gravitas. While it can be argued that this is the risk that comes with freedom, it means in certain places the only art that is accessible to the populace is bad art. While the language of contemporary art is in theory accessible to anyone, those who are only exposed to a framework of ABCs, cannot progress, do not even know there is progression to be had, as long as they are distracted by the straw man of the high street white cube. This is probably the most negative aspect of the artifying effect of the white cube. However, there are plenty of talented amateur artists too. It remains to be seen if the polarization of small communities will hinder development or actually, in the long run, promote an even richer diversity of activities. We are, as with many things on an arc of development that may only be seen in hindsight.
It has been forty years since O’Doherty said that context provides a large part of late modern and postmodern arts’ content and that this was the strength as well as weakness of art in the 1970s (O’Doherty, 1999, p.79). Today context still plays a major role, artists still wrestle with the ‘museum effect’ (Hantelmann, 2008), but in the intervening years, the efforts of artists to redefine art, to separate it from the institution have seen a shift. The white cube has entered the language to such an extent that it is possible that, while it can still represent the institution for those who would critique it, it no longer threatens to overwhelm or contain the artwork. The resilience it has shown, which once may have been frustrating, means that artist can move away from it, safe in the knowledge the cube is there as an anchor.
The artists this dissertation has discussed have operated in direct relation with the cube and its signifiers. In the last decade or so other artists have taken to the streets, to allotments, parks, gatherings, festivals, communities as well as deserts and urban landscapes and increasingly the parallel reality of the internet. This not the desperate escape of the rebellious, idealistic artist of the age of Aquarius but the curiosity of a more cynical but still curious artist of a diverse world, not fleeing but setting out from their permanent base to get a new perspective. The white cube remains a tangible hub, a pivot, a yardstick, a safe harbour in a sea of possibilities. The artist can explore different realms as once the explorers of the Elizabethan age did, absenting themselves from the court for years at a time, returning to have their treasures and new knowledge ratified, their experience gradually absorbed into the collective consciousness.
While not perfect-and, typically, in this very imperfection it may be perfect-the white cube is the vehicle with which we navigate the explosion of possibility that is contemporary culture. The nature of it is continuously paradoxical. Its walls, while being a frame for the traditional or modernist art piece can also be a foil to a seemingly infinite variety of works: the backdrop for the spectator’s imagination, a static arena for the dynamic performance, metaphor for the conceptualist. The white cube has become a cypher, reflecting our cultures insecurities, its habit of self-examination and deconstruction, its pluralism and its philosophies. The white cube is an integral part of the artwork, vital to the artist in conveying meaning, elemental in the viewer’s perception and indispensable to an artwork that would communicate with disparate populace of this diverse world. The aesthetic of the ideal modern art space, the white-walled gallery or the white cube, has shown extraordinary resilience. Loaded with meaning gathered over a century of explosive change the versatile cube responded, and continues to respond, to all comers.
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