Thursday, July 9, 2015

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?*

Some galleries in New Orleans have music piped through their exhibition space or coming from a computer at the reception desk. I’ve asked, just to make sure, Is the music part of the work? No, it’s not.

Today I went to Julia Street.  There is a brochure put out called New Orleans Arts District. I circled every gallery that advertised itself as a contemporary gallery or one that shows contemporary work. There were eight. One, I discovered, does not show contemporary art (by contemporary they mean “of this moment”).  One gallery was closed. One had a sign Ring the bell for admission so I skipped it.  And one had a sign at the gallery entrance: Fine Arts Crafts and Picture Framing, which clarified its programming. So that left four galleries in which I expected to see contemporary art in a setting that adheres to basic customs of exhibiting contemporary art. Two of the four galleries were playing music.

Listening to music when trying to view paintings, photographs, or sculpture is no less irritating than listening to someone’s phone ringing in a movie theater. Wait–no, it’s like someone in the theater eating loudly, crinkling wrapers during the entire screening. The audio intrusion is distracting and it diminishes the impact of the film. In the case of music in art galleries, the gallery itself is the one crinkling the candy wrappers.

Art, real art, is complete in and of itself. My fundamental conviction is this: that art, above its role as a commodity, above its value as a thing to own, above the custom of decorating homes with it, offers an experience. That experience can be described as a kind of shift in our sense of where and what and who we are. I believe transcendent experience is what distinguishes true art from art retail. Is there anything wrong with art retail? It has its place. But what happens when a community collectively confuses (or abides by the confusion) of art retail with art that offers an experience?

I guess what I should ask on Julia Street is this: Is this a real art gallery? The description “contemporary” is too slippery so I say “real.” Is this gallery tapped into the larger context of the global discussion? Does this distinction matter? To serious artists, viewers, collectors (I imagine) it does.

The element I may not be adequately considering is the economic reality of the situation. Judging by the profusion of music in casinos and shopping mall stores, I’m sure some study shows that music promotes the spending of money. Maybe that is the thinking behind the decision to play music in an art gallery. Even if that is the case, knowing it will not make my experience different than it is. I guess I just want to know if I am supposed to take these galleries seriously. More broadly I am trying to determine if New Orleans is a viable place to be a viewer or maker of serious art (experiential, global, non-retail). 

Tonight I have written only about the Julia Street Galleries—and really 2 out of 4 of them, but hey, that’s 50%! But elsewhere in the city, including the more hip and with-it collectives, I have encountered not only music, but Saints Games and Netflix movies. Regardless of what motivates a gallery or gallery sitters to introduce music (or sound) to a gallery of work, it is not conducive to serious viewing. These days everything makes noise and noise is everywhere. Why would we not welcome the mysterious quiet of a painting? Why would we not allow a viewer to feel the memory of noise—power tools or chisel—emanating from a sculpture? And part of the power of a photograph is its stillness, the sounding world brought to silence.

My final questions are these: What kind of art experience do we have here in New Orleans and what kind of art experience to we want?

Post-Text Quote (In Defense of Music) by Milan Kundera, from the novel Ignorance:
“As early as 1930 Schoenberg wrote: "Radio is an enemy, a ruthless enemy marching irresistibly forward, and any resistance is hopeless"; it "force-feeds us music . . . regardless of whether we want to hear it, or whether we can grasp it," with the result that music becomes just noise, a noise among other noises. Radio was the tiny stream it all began with. Then came other technical means for reproducing, proliferating, amplifying sound, and the stream became an enormous river. If in the past people would listen to music out of love for music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, "regardless whether we want to hear it," it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don't know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can't tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form): sewage-water music in which music is dying.”

*Note: Of course I stole this title from Raymond Carver's excellent short story.

1 comment :

  1. I agree with you here. I write from NYC, where no--literally not one--gallery or exhibition space that I can think of has background music. Even Target stores, in their effort to de-Kmart-ize themselves, did away with background music. I think music that is not part of the exhibit threatens to be at best interference with the experience and at worst a violation of what it means to be an art gallery. I'm reading a book right now on "social ontology"--that is, an attempt to understand the collectively intentional agreements we make when we form an institution. What makes an art gallery? Some criteria might be up for discussion, but background music doesn't seem to be one of them even in the running.