Adrian Hamilton: Popular exhibitions can be an exercise in irritation as much as appreciation

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The Independent Online

It's the gaggle peering at the caption so that you can't see the actual picture beside it that drives you mad in art shows. Those, and the 6ft 6in (and that across the shoulders) man who stands staring at the object directly in front of you so that you are barely able to see the edges of the picture, never mind the whole. Just as, when booking theatres, people over 6ft should be forced to sit in the back few rows, so there is a case for channelling gallery-goers into separate lines depending on height.

Going to a popular exhibition can be an exercise in irritation with your fellow man as much as an appreciation of art, made none the more pleasurable by gallery curators keen to make it a display of their academic research, quite ignoring the interests of the poor, benighted public coming to be educated and entranced. Just look at the size, never mind the cost, of the accompanying catalogues. In France, where they view the interested art lover as their proper audience, they provide cheaper, briefer guides and publications. Or listen to the audioguides, which galleries over here view simply as cash flows, not services worthy of investment.

In Britain we are still caught between the idea of high art, in which works should be appreciated in respectful silence and spacious homage, and the financial reality of blockbuster shows from which our public galleries hope to make large sums from the masses, whom they can treat as the clergy once treated the seething pilgrims who came to worship their relics.

But then look at how much better it is to have shows you can book for rather than queuing for hours round the blocks, as once we did for Tutankhamun's treasures. Without the ability to charge general entry fees, galleries are forced to look to exhibitions for their main source of income and public profile. Despite stories to the contrary, however, the age of the blockbuster is not upon us. It is in decline, as fashions change and the public are no longer prepared to accept the inconvenience. Instead, galleries are going for smaller, more specific shows of a period or a style which can be appreciated in more digestible bites – and all the better for it.

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery is the exception to the rule. And if you are to suffer for your cultural fix, for what better cause than a once-in-a-lifetime sight of the great masterpieces of this most-beloved genius of the Renaissance?