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The Art Gallery as a White Cube

Shaun McIntosh

August 2016



Inside the White Cube - An influential book by Brian O'Doherty lays out the fundamentals of the phenomenology of nihilism

Until recently the ‘white cube’ art gallery - categorised by neutral walls, neutral floors, neutral ceilings and neutral volumes - had established itself as the modus operandi for the conception of galleries. It was first conceived that this approach would allow the art of the gallery to command sole attention in that; the lack of peripheral stimulus accentuated attention onto the art.

The ‘white cube’ today, has come to symbolise associations contradicting its apparent neutrality; it has come to symbolise a closed system of values. Its environment has taken on: a sense of law, an air that is similar to the formality of the courtroom aesthetic, the sterile condition of the laboratory and the sanctity of non-secular buildings. It has evolved into a space that is intrinsically linked with the rigid values associated with how artistic society expects the visitor to perform when in the space:

The white cube and its neutrality dictates that the visitor should remain silent, wary of even the most delicate of decibels that may escape via yawn or itch.

The visitor must intend the art in a specific way: “true abstraction lies in the precise presence of the art”, imagery and connotations are not to be discussed for fear of imaginary cackles exclaiming ‘philistine!’ from the gluttonous smarmalade stained mouths of the artistic bourgeoisie…

Smiling Man on Laptop

The actual White Cube gallery is a staple of the art industry in London and Hong

It is precisely this atmosphere that dilutes how we experience artwork; as it forms expectations of how we should perceive it. The original condition of neutrality and immersion of the white cube has now been replaced by the security guard, lingering in the air.

Socially, it is this closed system of values that further detaches the layman from allowing art into their life. Art portrayed in this environment is didactic and condescending in that the environment instructs people how art should be experienced and marginalises those who cannot and choose not to empathise. It is this air of objectivity that belittles people and makes them feel inferior for not sharing what is in fact only one way of experiencing the composition of: form, texture, colour, light etc…

In essence, the intended pure neutrality of the white cube implies expectations that the visitor also behave neutrally and remove themselves from their own sense of self. They are to die and welcome limbo. If they wish to engage art with a unique perspective, they are not welcome. Is this the spirit of art?

The white cube and its objectivity is withering, does this now mean that we can look forward to a generation of uniquely composed art galleries or have architects just temporarily run out of white paint?

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