Philip Hensher: Why modern art is a matter of experience

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The Independent Online

Only two days after Ai Weiwei's installation opened, Tate Modern took the decision to restrict access to it. The installation consists of 100 million ceramic models of sunflower seeds, ten centimetres deep.

The original intention was to allow people to walk over the bed, but after two days, it became apparent that this was causing a cloud of porcelain dust to fill the gallery.

Some people claimed this was "health and safety gone mad" but, believe me, porcelain dust is stuff that you really don't want in your lungs and airways. The Tate is required by law to protect the waiting staff in its restaurants from the minuscule risk of inhaling secondary smoke from customers' cigarettes. The risk of ill health and injury resulting from its staff and visitors standing in and walking through a lot of porcelain dust is obviously a great deal higher, and it seems unfortunate that no one foresaw this danger.

The Tate didn't announce that it was erecting barriers in front of Ai Weiwei's installation, and the first people knew of it was when they arrived on Thursday, and were prevented from walking over it. Interestingly, the first visitors interviewed were rather furious. A Mr Sandy Shells said: "Maybe we should kick down the barriers." A Frank Doyle said: "I thought it would be nice to walk on it." A Ms Lucy Campbell, visiting the capital from Lyme Regis, was reported as saying: "I thought I'd be able to walk in it and make patterns in it ... it sounds like health and safety gone mad if you ask me."

I've forgotten the number of occasions when I've turned up at a gallery, collection or church, sometimes after quite a long journey, to discover that the specific work of art I came to see was in restauro, on loan to an exhibition in Buenos Aires, or, once, "the Duchess liked it, and it is actually in her bedroom at the moment." (Which was her perfect right – it was her Reynolds, after all). On none of these occasions did it occur to me to kick down any barriers, or feel anything but disappointment. But these days, so much of art is enjoyed as an experience, to walk through, to feel, to be submerged in, and occasionally be physically transported by. Previous Turbine Hall commissions have asked people to walk into darkened containers or hurl themselves down slides. Memorable "experiences" have included walking around in blinding white fog, or walking up to a distorting mirror in Kensington Gardens.

Sometimes, after one of these "experiences", I've thought that an immensely popular work of art might consist of asking visitors to go into a darkened room where a gentleman is waiting to kick them hard up the arse. In many of them, the echo of the fairground is so strong that many visitors hardly care whether this is art or not, so long as it's fun. The problem is, as Tate has just discovered, they then start to consider themselves paying customers, even when they aren't. They want to get on the ride, to walk in it and make patterns in it.

Worried about tuition fees? Head to Germany

Lord Browne's report on higher education is almost certain to make a university education much more expensive, to the point where many able people are likely to be discouraged from going to university at all. My education got me from Janet and John to a PhD without my having to pay anything at all, so the sums of money now being talked of seem simply horrifying.

There is an alternative, however. Instead of incurring vast debts for an English university degree, why not go to a university in Europe? There are many absolutely excellent universities in Europe. If you go to a university in Germany, for instance, tuition fees are at most €500 a semester, with two semesters a year. The teaching is first-rate, and the institutions are well-funded. You will find that the cost of living is not necessarily that high, particularly if you decide to study in the historic towns of the east. The pace of life is civilised, and public amenities are efficient and well-maintained.

And, when you have finished, you not only have an internationally recognised qualification from an excellent institution; you are not only emerging, like an English student of 30 years ago, without any debt at all; you have also acquired a good command of a useful foreign language. It is baffling to me even now why, considering all these obvious advantages, so few students get on the Eurostar to begin their studies.

Still, I expect the imbalance will soon become so clear, thanks to Lord Browne's report, that bright-spark English applications to Heidelberg and Humboldt universities, not to mention the numbers taking foreign-language A-levels, will rise sharply.

What a relief to see a movie with no sex in it

Coming out of Aaron Sorkin's terrific film about the early days of Facebook, The Social Network, we tried to work out quite why it had been so enjoyable. In the end, we concluded that the reason was because it was the first film for grown-ups we had seen for ages where neither love nor violence was at the forefront. The protagonist's romantic feelings surface briefly at the end, and people are threatened with a punch in the head. But mostly it is, grippingly, about the founding of a hugely successful business, and nothing more than that. You don't often see that in the movies these days, or perhaps ever.

When, in the 1970s, an unlikely friendship sprang up between Hattie Jacques and Quentin Crisp, they went to see that fine movie All The President's Men. Afterwards, to her fervent agreement, he remarked that it was a great relief to see a film with "absolutely no sex in it". I suspect one of the reasons people have taken to seeing movies for children is there is no sex, and no real violence; no grown-up concerns, either, alas.

Once in a while, I long to see a film about office life where no-one falls in love; a film about a bank where you know no bandit with a sawn-off shotgun will blow the pretty cashier's head off. Love and death are all very well, but most of us live, and are interested by, worlds of work, money and society. The Social Network does so well, not because it sugars the pill of start-up funds and contractual betrayals with a romantic story, but because it is interested in what, at bottom, we are all interested in. More, please.