Context isn’t everything, it’s the only thing

A couple of years ago I went to a Caravaggio exhibition at The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. One of the greatest painters ever, it was always going to be packed.

In fact so many people wanted to see it that you had to book a ticket, just like a show at the cinema or theatre. You booked a particular time, then you went along and queued with everyone else. Even then, when we got inside the exhibition it was packed.

It was in the basement, and just coming down the stairs you could see the crowd already. It was almost impossible to get near any of the pictures.

The star picture of the whole show was “Supper at Emmaus” showing Christ seated with three people.

The crowd around this particular painting was about six or seven deep. I don’t think anyone could have enjoyed it or studied it, or spent more than a few minutes in front of it. The crowd was like a single jostling mass, and you had to move with it.

I didn’t even bother trying to see that particular Caravaggio. There wasn’t any point. All year round it’s on show upstairs in the main part of The National Gallery. You can go to see it for free any time you want.

You can have the whole painting to yourself because hardly anyone goes to look at it. I knew this because, when my children were small, they’d asked me how to draw something to look like it’s coming towards you when it’s on a flat piece of paper. I knew a guy called Alan Reid, who was a bit of an art expert. So I asked him where I could find some good examples of ‘foreshortening’.

He said the best example was “Supper at Emmaus” which hung at The National. So we went along on a Saturday, sat on the floor in front of it, and spent a peaceful hour or so drawing it.

We had it to ourselves because no one had directed anyone’s attention to it. But as soon as it’s in an exhibition downstairs, you can’t get near it for the crowds. Isn’t that an amazing thing?

We seem incapable of judging for ourselves what’s good, we need someone to tell us. If it’s just hanging in a gallery with no one looking at it, how can it be any good? But if it’s in a major exhibition, it must be important and we need to see it.

In Singapore they have an expression for this sort of herd behaviour. It’s called ‘Kia Soo’. Loosely translated as ‘fear of being left out’. Like seeing a crowd, and rushing over to see what everyone’s looking at in case you missed something.

I saw an exhibition once at The Saatchi Gallery. One piece that fascinated me was by Gavin Turk. It was a piece of used chewing gum inside a glass case. It wasn’t the piece itself that fascinated me. For me the real art was watching the people gathered around the case studying a piece of used chewing gum.

They must have passed dozens of identical pieces of gum on the way to the gallery. Probably they’d pass dozens more on the way home. Would they stop and study each one? Would they stroke their chin and ponder on the meaning? Of course not.

They wouldn’t even see them, and even if they did they wouldn’t be worth discussing, admiring, studying, emulating. See we don’t judge the object for ourselves. We judge the fact that someone else says it has merit.

And we don’t want to be left out (‘Kia Soo’). But art galleries shouldn’t be like rubber stamps. They should be fun and provocative, they should stimulate your mind, not close it down. They’re an opinion, not an authority.

Just like advertising awards.

  • I love your post. I think this is definitely another great modern day example of the ‘Meme’ theory (however only a very very simple form of it of course!). Darwin called it imitable behavior. However I believe ‘fear of being left out’ is a good reasoning for this kind of thing too. I saw the ‘chewing gum’ art and just had to laugh. The only art I find in these kind of things is reading the artist’s reasons for the piece. But again, you can put a good novelty idea behind just about anything if you really wanted to.

  • http://

    Only the brave.
    Fear of being left out is sort if acceptable, isn’t it? When you’re a kid you want to move with the crowd, share thoughts and opinions common amongst your peers so that you don’t stick out or open yourself to ridicule. It’s safe.
    Part of growing up and becoming your own person is venturing out beyond the convention of the accepted opinion; to start having your own thoughts / ideas and to start expressing and developing them.
    Some people come to this earlier in life – others never get there.
    The moment of clarity comes when you realise that opinions are open to everyone and are rarely either right or wrong.
    The brave will open up, share their ideas, put them forward for others to develp or comment on – these are risk-takers, the creative people (and I don’t just mean those blessed with crayons and words).
    The sheep will just latch on to the prevailing trend and say ‘me too’ quite a lot.
    Be brave.

  • http://

    I think the instances you site are as much to do with a modern audience’s relationship with art, as much as people’s fear of feeling left out. The Turk example shows, as Nes points out, that the only thing conceptual art has is its concept, and playing with context and definitions is a frequent cheap trick it employs – the pile of bricks, Duchamp’s toilet, an animal in formaldehyde.

    With Caravaggio the audience is still being attracted to something that requires explaining – the rules of interpreting the masters are now so arcane to a modern audience that accurate understanding is almost impossible without help from authoritative sources like galleries and historians.

    What’s undeniable, though, is that context skews interpretation. Think Michael Jackson and how wall-to-wall news coverage made his music seem more important than it had done in years. Think about those times when you’ve bumped into someone on the train and can’t remember their name because you normally only see them near home. Think about how a song you like somehow sounds better when it’s on the radio rather than when you’ve chosen to play it yourself (simultaneously more ‘for you’ and more communal)..

  • http://

    Interesting picture Dave.

    It seems Caravaggio did a second painting 6 years later. A much more somber affair after having shot a man in a duel. It’s curious how the meat has now been removed from the table almost as a mark of respect for the dead man. As you say, context is the only thing, and it’s interesting to see how the content changes according to the context within Caravaggio’s mind of where his soul sits with God.

    That context has not changed even to this day. Damien Hirst’s “For the love of God” sale was followed by a hansome donation to Charity. The “Desecrated Bible” has been catching the news from the Glasgow Art Gallery, where some of the words written on it have even upset the young new artist.

    Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are unavailable for comment, but no doubt droves of people will appear to see this new piece of chewing gum.

    For myself, Turner’s Norham Castle Sunrise just hits the spot for me. The Tate devoted a whole room to this one painting, and it just was “WOW!” I saw the same painting on exhibition at the Museum of Art in Washington and it just didn’t look the same. The whole painting lives or dies by the way it is lit. I nearly got thrown out of the museum for trying to take a photograph of it and got really annoyed that someone overseas should contest me over recording my own national heritage. It makes me wonder how the Greeks feel about the Elgin Marbles being entombed in the British Museum. It’s a funny thing is art. I guess the greatest award is to be remembered, not for the French Salon Prize paintings that litter the Louvre that nobody looks at but for the true great art that stands the test of much time like Caravaggio’s work.

  • http://

    Apparently The Times is saying Hackney is THE place to be in London. Personally I’ve always thought it to be a toilet. The social problems can’t be papered over by organic delis. Will the the middle classes listen to me or will they pay heed to Murdoch?

  • http://

    Growing up, my dad always told me he was from Oxton.
    My mum, who was from Mile End, always said Oxton was a rough area.
    It wasn’t until years later I found out it was pronounced Hoxton.
    Context, eh?

  • http://

    When I was ‘up the junction’ the finance guy at M&C told me he lived in Battersea ‘Village’. Guess there are a lot about reframing their parameters.

  • http://

    Yup, when I lived in N10 I lived on the same block as an art director and an account man at BMP..
    A ciient once asked us where we lived and, at the same moment, I said “Ally Pally”, the art director said “Muswell Hill”, and the account man said “Highgate”.

  • http://

    It is amazing. Another I knew lived in Kilburn but insisted that it was West Hampstead. In ‘Only Fools…’ I remember Rodney pretending he lived on Kings Avenue. Del Boy told Rodney that he wanted better than the estate they lived on but that they shouldn’t be ashamed of where they lived.
    What do you think is at the root of it of all this subterfuge?

  • http://

    What do you think is at the root of all this subterfuge?

  • http://

    I think it’s just ‘branding’.
    Years ago my mum was reading a story about me in Campaign.
    She said, “This doesn’t make you look very good. It says here you’re from Barking in East London, but you’re from Dagenham in Essex.”
    Of course Mum, silly me, that makes me look much posher.

  • http://

    …but of course! If it’s not one thing it’s your mother.

  • http://

    Back to ‘OFAH’. Mike has done food in the Nag’s Head. To the ‘new’ yuppies it’s Beef Stroganoff and Mike charges £3.50.
    To Del it is what it’s always been. Stew and it’s £1.
    ‘Branding’ always needs a reason.

  • http://

    They’re not happy Kevin, not happy at all. A new musuem has been built opposite the Acropolis designed to host the marbles (more in hope than expection now ) and remains incomplete without them, which I think’s a shame although I may be a little biased.

  • http://

    Dear Mr Solomi,

    As Dave says about branding, perhaps the answer is to name the new museum: “The Museum of the Stolen Elgin Marbles. Then it’s a win win situation for the Greek Government, and a permanent embarrasment to ours.

    Nice talking to you Mr Solomi.
    I have to go now.
    The van is outside.
    They are coming to take me away.

  • Alice

    Smoking is great, I’m glad I started at 8, it’s my favorite hobby. I’m 28 years old, and I have a 13 year old daughter who just started smoking too. We’re like a family of smokers! It’s so adorable!