White Cube Quotes

Favorite quotes from Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space by Brian O’Doherty

Writing about your past writing is the closest you get to coming back from the dead. You assume a false superiority over your previous self, who did all the work. [109]

A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church.  The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off.  Walls are painted white.  The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall. The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life.’… Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial—the space is devoted to the technology of esthetics.  Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study. Their ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes.  Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, an dthough there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time.  The eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furtniture, your own body, seems superfluous, and intrusion.  The space offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space-occupying bodies are not—or are tolerated only as kinesthetic mannequins for further study…Here at last the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there. [15]

Regarding 19th century salons, hung cheek-to-jowl: “What perceptual law could justify (to our eyes) such barbarity? One and only one: Each picture was seen as a self-contained entity, totally isolated from its slum-close neighbor by a heavy frame around and a complete perspective system within.  Space was discontinuous and categorizable, just as the houses in which these pictures hung had different rooms for different functions.  The nineteenth century mind was taxonomic, and the nineteenth century eye recognized hierarchies of genre and the authority of the frame. [16]

Progress can be defined as what happens when you eliminate the opposition. [27]

Couldn’t modernism be taught to children as a series of Aesop’s fables?  It would be more memorable than art appreciation.  Think of such fables as “Who Killed Illusion” or “How the Edge Revolted Against the Center.”  “The Man Who Violated the Canvas” could follow “Where Did the Frame Go?” It would be easy to draw morals: think of “The Vanishing Impasto That Soaked Away – and Then Came Back and Got Fat.”  And how would we tell the story of the little Picture Plane that grew up and got so mean? How it evicted everybody, including Father Perspective and Mother Space, who had raised such nice real children, and left behind only this horrid result of an incestuous affair called Abstraction, who looked down on everybody, including – eventually – its buddies, Metaphor and Ambiguity; and how Abstraction and the Picture Plane, thick as thieves, kept booting out a persistent guttersnipe named Collage, awho just wouldn’t give up. Fables give you more latitude than art history. [35]

The content of the empty canvas increased as Modernism went on. Imagine a museum of such potencies, a temporal corridor hung with blank canvasses—from 1850, 1880, 1910, 1950, 1970.  Each contains, ebfore ab rush is laid on it, assumptions implicit in the art of its era.  As the series approaches the present, each member accumulates a more complex latent content.  Modernism’s classic void ends up stuffed  with ideas all ready to jump on the first brushstroke. [36]

Who is this Spectator, also called the Viewer, sometimes called the Observer, occasionally the Perceiver? It has no face, is mostly a back.  It stoops and peers, is slightly clumsy. Its attitude is inquiring, its puzzlement discreet.  He – I’m sure it is more male than female – arrived with modernism, with the disappearance of perspective. He seems born  out of the picture and, like some perceptual Adam, is drawn back repeatedly to contemplate it.  The Spectator seems a little dumb; he is not you or me. Always on call, he staggers into place before every new work that requires his presence.  This obliging stand-in is ready to enact our fanciest spectualtions. He tests them patiently and does not resent that we provide him with directions and responses: ‘The viewer feels…’; ‘the observer notices…’; ‘the spectator moves….’ He is sensitive to effects: ‘The effect on the spectator is….’ He smells out ambiguities like a bloodhound: ‘caught between these ambiguities, the spectator….’ HE not only stands and sits on command; he lies down and even crawls as modernism presses on him its final indignities.  Plunged into darkness, deprived of perceptual cues, blasted by strobes, he frequently watches his own image chopped up and recycled by a variety of media.  Art conjugates him, and he is a sluggish verb, eager to carry the wight of meaning but not always up to it.  He balances; he tests; he is mystified, demystified.  In time, the Spectator stumbles around between confusing roles: he is a cluster of motor reflexes, a dark-adapted wanderer, the vivant in a tableau, an actor manqué, even a trigger of sound and light in a space land-mined with art.  He may even be told that he himself is an artist and be persuaded that his contribution to what he observes or trips over is its authenticating signature. [39-41]

If the house is the house of modernism, what knocks can you expect? The house itself, built on ideal foundations, is imposing, even though the neighborhood is changing. It has a Dada kitchen, a fine Surrealist attic, a utopian playroom, a critics’ mess, clean, well-lighted galleries for what is current, votive lights to various saints, a suicide closet, vast storage rooms, and a basement flophouse where failed histories lie around mumbling like bums.  We hear the Expressionist’s thunderous knock, the Surrealist’s coded knock, the Realist at the tradesman’s entrance, the Dadas sawing through the back door. Very typical is the Abstractionist’s single, unrepeated knock. And unmistakable is the peremptory knock of historical inevitability, which sets the whole house scurrying. [65]

If the white wall cannot be summarily dismissed, it can be understood. This knowledge changes the white wall, since tis content is composed of mental projections based on unexposed assumptions. The wall is our assumptions.  It is imperative for every artists to know this content and what it does to his/her work…..Was the white cube nurtured by an interneal logic similar to that of its art? Was its obsession with enclosure an organice response, encysting tart that would not otherwise survive? Was it an economic oconstruct formed by capitalist models of scarcity and demand?….What keeps it stable is the lack of alternatives. [80]

For avant-garde gestures have two audiences: one which as there and one – most of us – which wasn’t.  The original audience is often restless and bored by its forced tenanc of a moment it cannot fully perceive – and that often uses boredom as a kind of temporal moat around the work.  Memory (so disregarded by modernism which frequently tries to remember the future by forgetting the past) compeltes the work years later.  The original audience is, then, in advance of itself. We from a distance know better. [88]

Visual art does not progress by having a good memory. And New York is the locus of some radical forgetting. You can reinvent the past, suitably disguised, if no one remembers it. Thus is originality, that patented fetish of the self, defined. [109]

The economic model in place for a hundred years in Europe and the Americas is product, filtered through galleries, offered to collectors and public institutions, written about in magazines partially supported by the galleries, and drifting towards the academic apparatus that stabilizes ‘history’ – certifying, much as banks do, the holding of its major repository, the museum.  History in art is, ultimately, worth money. Thus do we get not the art we deserve but the art we pay for.  This comfortably system went virtually unquestioned by the key figure it is based upon: the artist. [109]

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