Visual Cultures as Seriousness, by Gavin Butt and Irit Rogoff

Goldsmiths, University of London has launched a series of publications considering the discipline of visual cultures

By Laura McLean-Ferris

Accompanying the celebrations and tributes to the rangy, generous contributions made to cultural studies by the late theorist Stuart Hall have been some contemporary glossings of the academic discipline for which he became a figurehead, and appraisals of its success. Giving subjects such as television, music, street fashion and mainstream cinema serious academic consideration was part of the cultural studies project: developing a politics of representation and the theoretical tools to consider how various forces shape popular culture and how these in turn shape identity. Subsequently, the idea of ‘the serious’ was in some ways transformed from the late 1960s onwards, as areas of culture not previously considered for ‘serious’ study were permitted into academia, albeit in order to ask urgent questions about race, class, politics and so forth.

Around half a century later, Goldsmiths, University of London has launched a series of publications considering the discipline of visual cultures – one of those ushered in by Hall and Richard Hoggart (among others) in the 1950s – and among these are Gavin Butt and Irit Rogoff’s contribution on the topic of ‘seriousness’. The publication is somewhat brief and chattily propositional; most akin to the experience of watching two papers and a panel discussion at a talk or conference. Though there are points of convergence, the ways in which Butt and Rogoff approach seriousness are rather oblique. To radically condense these positions, Rogoff believes that the artworld needs more seriousness, while Butt, in a more narrowly focused study, analyses the ability of camp and drag performers, specifically David Hoyle, to approach angry, political, ‘serious’ subjects.

The publication is somewhat brief and chattily propositional; most akin to the experience of watching two papers and a panel discussion at a talk or conference

For readers of this magazine, it’s Rogoff’s essay that is perhaps most germane, as it stems from a kind of fundamental mistrust of the artworld, and joins a litany of recent articles that essentially denigrate what has happened to art in the age of a) popular spectacles put on by museums such as Tate Modern and MoMA, or by Frieze Art Fair and b) the power of the art market and its wealthiest collectors to shape what we see. (Jerry Saltz’s ‘The Long Slide: Museums as Playgrounds’, New York Magazine, 2011; Holland Cotter’s ‘Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex’, The New York Times, 2014; etc.) Concerning museums, Rogoff argues convincingly that a focus on accessibility as opposed to a more productive notion of ‘access’ has fundamentally damaged one of the key motives for trying to bring more people to art in the first place, which is that it allows them to take part in a very active conversation about what art and culture is or should be, and to have some kind of agency in deciding what might be worthy of attention or deep thought.

Handling artists’ works in prepackaged, marketed, bitesize formats, as though all issues are fully resolved, she writes, ‘does not allow for the inhabitation of this processual and ongoing conversation, opting instead for entry points that assume a fully completed entity which can be entered frontally.’ In other words, we consume culture as clients, rather than being involved in any form of live thinking. She also believes that an emphasis on accessibility implies there is ‘something impossibly complicated here, something that needs mediation and explanation, so that the entire experience is framed by a stated determination to avoid complexity at all costs’. This is surely a tricky balance, however, as we must accept that some art is complicated, and demands time and attention to understand.

A big part of me wants to take issue with the book’s stated subject, which is that ‘the contemporary art world has become more inhospitable to “serious” intellectual activity in recent years’. Really? Which artworld? There are, of course, elements to the artworld that are radically divorced from serious thought, and one can’t discount their presence. There are, it’s true, crowd-pleasing spectacles such as Random International’s Rain Room (2012) at MoMA and the Barbican. And the recent appearance of a website called sellyoulater.com (whether legitimate or not) is a chilling glimpse of artworks as pure commodity, categorizing artists based on a supposed algorithm that rates their names as though they were companies for financial investment. However, given that Rogoff ends with a call for a recalibrated, focused intellectual intensity or passion as a form of seriousness, one can only suggest that in an expanded world of art that has invited different forms of masses to take part, from fun-seeking daytrippers to hedge funders, there are now many interlinked artworlds. And so the question becomes: which one do you want to give passionate attention?

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue.