The National Portrait Gallery is one of London’s quietest spaces. Countless junior school trips to museums, collections and galleries have taught us that our voice is no match for several hundred years of tradition and peeling acrylic.
The fundamental purpose of this universally enforced silence is to create a sensory space in which art can be experienced. This extends far beyond the bounds of literal space; we are also expected to be silent in our interactions with the artist. In the modern era, the fourth wall is poorly cemented, and can often be razed by a single Tweet.
This potential for interaction between artist and audience is a recent phenomenon, sprung from mass literacy education. Prior to the twentieth century, les beaux arts were principally reserved for those possessing sufficient economic and social capital to either purchase or attend viewings.
Alongside the fine arts on this pedestal, one could also find a well-respected and authoritative academia. The artist was not the institution tasked with interpretation or judgement, regardless of social status or ritual admiration.
Today, there is a closer relationship between artists and their audience. The role of the artist has been subject to a huge shift. It has gone from being a clutched brush, lurking behind a piece, robed in private education, to being an element inseparable from the meaning and experience of visual artwork. Increasing visibility and public awareness has prompted a shift of focus from a work itself to the signature in the bottom corner.
Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst stand at opposing ends of the spectrum when it comes to commenting on their own works. Koons, famous for his $58.4 million ‘Balloon Dog’, consistently refuses to comment on the significance and interpretations of his pieces.
Cynics amongst us may view this as a marketing strategy. It does cultivate mystique, but it also serves a far more important role: the abstract nature of his work is given the opportunity to develop and grow via natural processes. Meaning is not tethered to a socio- political stance, or public celebrity. His artwork is released into society as an artefact of both reflection and commentary, a mirror designed to highlight and elongate certain features, but ultimately reflect a different image back to each observer. To quote Koons himself, ‘the dialogue…goes outward and is shared with other people’, a symbiotic and organic mechanism of interaction that would be robbed of potency and true significance, if connected to an agenda or specific identity.
Hirst is a diametric opposite of Koons. I am yet to see him waste an opportunity to speak about his series and collections. But this has not been to positive effect. For an artist whose work is at least broadly comparable to Koons’, he has resisted the charms of all subtlety of public expression, sacrificing artistic power for minor celebrity.
His flippant approach to the interpretation of his work, embedded in totalising generalisations about modern art of specific, seemingly contrastic evocations of deceased figures, shows how artist-audience interactions can fail.
When gifted the ‘silence’ they demand, artworks stand a much greater chance of achieving any form of atemporality. If not grounded by a specific position or interpretation, art becomes much more relatable, as individual reception is prioritised over propagandist or jingoist depictions of niche views of society. We become far more aware of our own presence in art when the space is not occupied by the original producer.
However, it is important to note that the modern emphasis on personal response to art does not entail freedom from power structures. When an artist comments, we listen, often with reverence and adoration, as if any utterance is some gospel of our day. We need only look to the cult of quotation surrounding Andy Warhol to see this in action, or the media obsession with discovering the true identity of Banksy.
As the Instagram society, we are now more focused on authorial influence than ever before. An image, be it a fourth plinth installation or a Facebook profile photo, is a representation of an individual, but it is detached from them by an observable, silent gulf, bridgeable only by comments from artists themselves.
It is silence which allows an autonomous function of art, but it is also silence which spawns the frenzy of identification and classification surrounding modern creatives.