Origins of the White Cube

The White Cube as a concept has been fairly ubiquitous for most of my life; certainly for as long as I have been viewing art. From Thomas McEvilly’s precis of Brian O’Doherty’s essays the key points I read are:
– The deliberate presentation space and lack of external reference points is designed to impart the idea that the work exists outside of time. It has no connection to the outside world
– The similarities to religious institutions – churches etc. – encourages the idea that appreciation of the work is akin to worship. It symbolises a certain sensibility and that by viewing and appreciating the work we are agreeing with that sensibility. McEvilly says this agreement (he uses the phrase “sympathetic magic”) has the effect of confirming an enduring power structure (i.e. the art establishment).
– Presentation discourages our own individuality; we are asked to give up our humanness and become more passive in our consumption of the work. McEvilly uses the phrase “the repression of individual interests in favour of the interests of the group”.

That white cube as a concept is designed to deny the outside world corresponds to several aspects of modern life. Shopping centres with no external windows or clocks have a similar aim. In this case rather than the eternity of artistic posterity, the spiritual realm is continuous consumption. The aims are different but the means by which we are encouraged to be ‘good citizens’ is largely similar. McEvilly describes the white cube as a kind of non-space, “where the surrounding matrix of space-time is symbolically annulled”. This description corresponds with some of the ways Marc Augé defines non-places in “Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity”.

Although I had not previously thought at all about presentation in these terms, I have an instinctive wariness of being manipulated. I’m not against gallery presentations at all as there are a lot of positives about this type of display. Often a visit to an exhibition will be accompanied by a hand-out, notes to aid the appreciation of the works on display. I generally avoid reading these notes, at least not until after I have looked at the works themselves.

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