realUNreal Ralph Rugoff

April 17, 2013



“Do art exhibitions  regularly  leave you feeling tired, listless, or

uninspired?  Have you ever felt as if the work on display had no interest in

engaging your intelligence or even acknowledging your presence?  Do you often

feel lonelier and less connected after such encounters?

“If you have endured any of these unpleasant symptoms, don’t despair.

There is an alternative.  For more information call 1-800 . . . ”

If you could peruse the classified advertisements section of my mind, you

would find this announcement under the heading “Viewers Wanted.”  If a

complete phone number were listed, I would have called it myself numerous

times, as I have visited more than one exhibition that left me feeling like an

irrelevant outsider who simply didn’t “get it.” At other times, I have

slouched out of a gallery wondering if the exhibition organizers  had aspired

to the ideal, formulated by the critic Michael Fried in the 1960s, that truly

great art must be self-contained, to the point where it maintains the “supreme

fiction” that the viewer simply isn’t there.

Isn’t there an alternative?  Isn’t it possible to package and present

contemporary art in another manner: one which engages our intelligence and

which, rather than talking down to us, invites us to discover and converse?

The difficulty is: how do you encourage an experience of “discovery?”

Since we cannot discover anything with which we are already familiar, the

first step must necessarily involve creating a sense of distance between the

audience and the works in an exhibition.  If we are always sure of how to

approach the art on display, we miss out on the opportunity to ask questions

and to discover where our own thoughts and feelings lead us. For this reason,

one of the most valuable things an exhibition can do is encourage us to

entertain a degree of uncertainty not only about the nature of what we are

looking at, but about what rules and criteria we “should” be using to judge it

— and perhaps to wonder as well if judgment is really our most intelligent or

interesting response.

To encourage us to become more active viewers, exhibitions also need to

distance us from our already-distanced gaze. This involves detaching us from

the idea of being mere “spectators,” non-participants who have no critical

role to play. Exhibitions must somehow convey a sense that they include space

for our own contributions, that they don’t simply present culture, but are

involved in the process of inventing it in a deal worked out with each and

every visitor. Instead of handing us a fait accompli, they can ask us to join

a negotiation that is still in process.  In short, they could aim to remind

us, as Marcel Duchamp insisted, that the viewer is responsible for half the

work in art’s creation.


VIEWERS WANTED  by Ralph Rugoff

Artist: Jason Fox,(Jeffrey Vallance(Cur)