Book Review: A Study of Art Galleries Reveals Their Aesthetic of Transcendental Experience

David Carrier’s The Contemporary Art Gallery is a small but well-stocked treasury of first-hand observations by someone who’s spent a lot of time in art galleries, but who has retained enough critical distance to see them with a certain objectivity.

9781443897860Tony Smith had his revelation on the then-still-unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I had mine on Springs Fireplace Road in East Hampton — a prominent address, as it’s where Jackson Pollock lived, and where he died in a car crash in 1956. One day, more than fifty years later, I was driving north on that road at about 40 mph when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed on the other side of the road, the southbound side, a nondescript building with a sign on its façade reading the fireplace project. I said to myself, in utter surprise, “Hey, there’s a serious gallery over there!” It was surprising because I’d spent a lot of time in East Hampton before, and while there had always been galleries in town (though not in this lower-rent part of town, the Springs) they were never “our sort” of galleries; they were galleries that could be written off as commercial, ones that, yes, sometimes showed things of quality, but more often, sold work that was ingratiating, too colorful, even kitschy. But as I continued driving north, I started to wonder: how was it that I had instantly registered the nature of what I had glimpsed for a only split second? How did I even know it was a gallery — the word itself had been nowhere to be seen — and, unable to see through the small windows, why did I think I knew that inside there would be something I’d accept as art?

Driving on, I mulled over these questions without resolving them, but when I’d finished with the errand that had taken me up to the northern reaches of Springs, I decided that on the way back I’d stop at that Fireplace Project to verify my intuition. It was on the money. What I saw was a credible exhibition by a promising young artist who’d already shown with a good New York gallery. Suddenly I had an explicit awareness of something that I’d already dimly known without ever having quite articulated it to myself: the art world has a very specific aesthetic, whose presence or absence is immediately perceptible to its denizens, and that this is totally independent of the aesthetic of the art presented there.

Like me, David Carrier is a habitué of the art world. But his way into art has been unusual. A philosopher by training, he followed his teacher Arthur Danto in taking an interest in philosophical aesthetics. This academic interest led to his moonlighting as an art critic, and that eventually led in turn to his transformation into an art historian and theorist. Perhaps his most valuable work has taken the form of philosophically serious investigations of some important but often theoretically underexamined branches of the institution of art, namely criticism (in Artwriting, 1987), art history (Principles of Art History Writing, 1991) and museums (Museum Skepticism, 2006). His most recent book, The Contemporary Art Gallery, might appear to be something similar, a systematic examination of the role of galleries — in their very appearance as much as their operations — in contemporary art. Actually, though, it’s a somewhat different kind of book: less scholarly, more conversational than Carrier’s earlier efforts, it’s a small but well-stocked treasury of first-hand observations by someone who’s spent a lot of time in art galleries, but who has retained enough critical distance to see them with a certain objectivity. This allows him to make explicit what usually goes without saying. Reading it, if you’re an assiduous gallery goer, you might get the feeling of being told things you already knew — but, aside from their having been ne’er so well expressed, Carrier’s observations really amount to first notes toward the treatment of a vast subject that’s never been systematically studied, though there are precedents in Brian O’Doherty’s famous little book on the white cube, which Carrier duly notes, and Lawrence Alloway’s essays on art as a system, which Carrier strangely overlooks.

While Carrier’s insights can’t completely account for the art world aesthetics so impressed me that afternoon on Springs Fireplace Road — that would take a vast empirical research project on the scale of Franco Moretti’s studies of the novel — his intuitive observations make a beginning:

Once industrial production made abundance possible, the ultimate luxury was restrained sparseness. The grander the restaurant, the less food is on your plate; the more posh the store, the fewer garments on display; the better the hotel, the less decorative art. It’s as if the ability to restrict one’s comfort […] becomes a transcendental experience raising the wealthy or cultured above the crass overindulgences of the rest of us. The art gallery going experience is part of that structure.

This is obviously true, and not exactly unthought-of, but focusing on the gallery space itself as a locus for this aesthetic explains something that might otherwise have been mysterious: How to account, within this aesthetic of restraint, for the aesthetic of excess of a Koons or a Murakami? I’d say that it’s because the gallery itself provides the atmosphere of asceticism that affords permission and containment for the visual prodigality of the art — the gallery puts the art in quotes, as it were, and it’s those quotation marks that assure the art’s aesthetic propriety despite all appearances.

The Contemporary Art Gallery is a very personal book, dependent on its author’s own experiences and perceptions over many years as a critic. For that reason, it’s somewhat surprising that, although narrated in the first person singular, it’s signed by the author together with a collaborator. No problem there, but as a kind of appendix though not so called, the authors, now in the plural, in order “to give context for our commentary on art writing […] offer samples of our published reviews.” These include one by Carrier’s collaborator Darren Jones that should never have been published, let alone reprinted. It’s one thing to complain that in a situation of restricted opportunity for art critics, the entrenchment of a few established voices such as those of Roberta Smith and Peter Schjeldahl means less space for younger aspirants; but — especially when Jones can’t point to any decline in the quality of the elder writers’ work — it’s foolish of him to call on them to commit career suicide to make way for the up-and-comers. A better use of his time would have been to think of ways to develop new spaces for emerging critics (of which Hyperallergic has been notably one).

Speaking of new spaces, Carrier ends by examining some of the competition to which galleries are now subject from fairs, auction houses, and the internet. But he doesn’t seem to take seriously enough the sense of crisis that now seems widespread among gallerists — at least those whose establishments have not attained the global status of the Zwirners, Gagosians, et al. The owl of wisdom takes wing at twilight, as Hegel said, and this examination of the gallery as we came to know it in the 20th century — it did not exist before then — may be more retrospective in character than we imagine. Some new way of presenting art will come to the fore soon enough, I imagine. In 20 years, a new edition of this book might well have to be titled, What Was an Art Gallery? The good thing is that, reading it, someone could get a pretty concrete idea of how it really was.

Barry Schwabsky


David Carrier with Darren Jones, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege (2016) is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.


This review was originally posted on Hyperallergic and can be accessed here.

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