Art galleries: dontcha hate 'em?

Don't even think about inviting Jonathan Glancey to a private view at a commercial art gallery...
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The Independent Culture
I have jumped from aircraft, looped the loop and crossed roaring crevices by fraying rope bridges; I have walked through the shanty towns of Bogata at night, and been escorted "for my own good" by New York's finest out of the South Bronx. I have even survived a night at Stringfellow's. I list these experiences only to say that I would willingly go through any of them again in preference to a private view in Cork Street. Or a visit to almost any of the established art galleries in central London.

For someone who loves painting and paintings, this blind spot might seem as perverse as Van Gogh's cutting off his ear to spite his face. Yet, a phobia of private art galleries is hardly a private fear. It is shared by many artists, who depend on galleries to earn them a living, and by countless people who love art and might come to appreciate the work of the most perversely obscurantist contemporary painter if galleries were less scary and snobbish.

Who dares sweep nonchalantly into a Cork Street gallery? Someone cocky and confident or else bolstered for the occasion by a few large Jamesons. A trust fund is better than whiskey to nurture the necessary glow of rakish confidence, as is a swept-back hair-do or the comforting knowledge that someone one knows, or is related to, runs the place. For the private gallery is a kind of club, more exclusive in spirit than Pratt's or White's and less egalitarian than either Phillips or Christie's.

And, yet, while the most aloof clubs hide behind anonymous faades, their doors free from plaques and name-plates, the modern gallery is the most revealing of all contemporary buildings, a thing of floor-to-ceiling plate glass, where a nose blown or a hand run through an assistant's immaculately groomed locks can be mistaken for an Yves Klein-like "event" or an Andy Warhol memorial "happening". Walls are painted brilliant white, floors are laid in New York-style varnished timber, lights are bright, and paintings, very often, as one-dimensional as the architecture that frames them. Prices are works of art in their own right.

For, this is architecture, if that is the word (no it isn't; it's shopfitting), at its most minimal and icy. It puts paintings and punters alike on show. Small wonder then that svelte gallery assistants look down their perfectly formed noses at the sort of riff-raff that walks off the street in frightful clothes.

The big question that the assistant, rudely interrupted from organising her social life on the telephone, has to ask herself when someone dares to cross the threshold (where art meets Society but not society) is this: do we know this person? To check credentials, the assistant flicks her hair (again), rattles her jewellery and, with a practiced sneer, demands in a voice born to call hounds to order across southern county acres, "Do you need any assistance?"

The expression in her voice contains a grammar of sub-clauses and barely hidden sub-texts. It means among many other things, (1) Have we met? (2) Surely you're not on our list? (3) Have you got the right building? (4) Are you the sort of person we should be selling to? (5) Would you mind leaving, I have a drinks party this evening and simply must get away by five. At least, it sounds as if it means some or more of these things. The point is to chill the unwelcome visitor out of the gallery.

Many people, artists and art lovers, without a splinter let alone a chip on their shoulder, share my admittedly rather cheap sentiment. Art galleries seem toffee-nosed, cold and exclusive. They have their lists of potential clients and pet critics and know them all by sight. These they invite to drink cheap wine at Private Views (by their very nature exclusive), not to look at paintings, but to exchange smart gossip about how brilliantly Johnny is doing this term, about who's in and who's out and what a super party that was last weekend at the Brownnoses. The painter, unless as cocky as Damien Hirst (White Cube) or as socially adept as, say, Patrick Heron (Waddington's), is rather left out. What the true artist wants to talk about is neither the meaning of his work (there is often none, even when the artist's work is superb), nor little Johnny's brilliant academic career; the artist, quite rightly, wants to talk money.

Artists, unless socially ambitious, tend to have their feet on the ground. Their eyes might brim with untried and untested shapes and colours, but they need to make a living. Most dream of escaping the gallery system altogether and of selling direct to clients. But, until the dream comes true, galleries mean money.

Their role is to sell art at the highest possible price to people who can be persuaded to part with the readies. This is not as easy as it seems. An artist has to be hyped high and long for prices to rise as high as galleries need to underwrite their costly lifestyle.

If selling to sophisticated buyers, the hype must appear erudite. So Jay Jopling, the young man who makes a mint selling the work of artists like Hirst and Whiteread, says that the architecture of his gallery, White Cube, the hang-out for smart young arties, is deeply influenced by Wittgenstein (perennially hip because as wilfully obscure as any artist). Deep, eh? In fact, says Jopling, White Cube is not really an art gallery at all, but a "special project room for contemporary art". Gosh. But, why? Well because mainstream contemporary galleries are, as everyone knows, warehouses in the East End of London; central London is a showcase for exceptional "projects". Add to this artful nonsense catalogue essays that Ludwig Wittgenstein himself would be hard-pressed to decode and the hype is in full swing. It is designed to flatter the sensibilities of buyers who probably went to university but never quite got a grip on modern philosophy or art theory. Wittgenstein is relevant to the White Cube gallery only in so far as he might sell a hippopotamus in preserving fluid.

This chic, pseudo-academic hype is also guaranteed to keep art out on a social limb. The hoi polloi might well enjoy the sight of farm animals pickled for our amusement by beady young artists; so, to keep them at bay, and off our invitation lists, we lean on Ludwig.

Surely, though, one can walk down Cork Street on a summer evening and see a gaggle of apparently dclass young things chattering eagerly about the latest trends in art, while the old litist art types drone on about little Johnny's schooldays down the road in fustier galleries? Things are changing. "Suddenly", as style sections of newspapers say, art is "in". Ah, but cast aside that sea of designer-silk, those baseball caps, battered motorbike jackets and right-on mumbling and you will find the children of the grown-ups down the street. Fashions for new forms and schools of art come and go, but though the smart art word changes its clothes, it never changes its spots.

Art is, if one strips away the social cachet and academic pretension of galleries, above all, a commodity. Galleries are not "special project rooms" but Sloaney shops run by bushy-tailed young things who would sell their grandmother (Whistler's mother, even better) if they could get her to pose as a living sculpture like clever Gilbert & George. By its very nature the central London gallery must be exclusive.

None of this rant is to advocate selling art on the cheap. The fashion for flogging paintings supermarket-style in big, slick shows is simply the same principle at work on a bigger scale, an attempt to make people feel that a bargain-basement painting on the wall is somehow preferable to no painting at all. Bringing art to everyone is, properly, the work of public institutions, pressure groups, politicians, museum directors, Artangel and even the media. But as long as art can appeal to our vanity, our social ambitions, our idea of what constitutes sophisticated taste, the Arty-Smarty gallery will be there to cleverly exploit our desire to buy and to be the right thing. As to you Damien, Rachel and whoever else is "in" at the moment - go for it. Pickle your sheep right and you will get rich quick. And the rest of us will catch up with your work when it gets into the public galleries.