why i hate the white cube 2

5/7/2020 ZM

The very first art thought we ever published was one I wrote called <why I hate the white cube>. For the longest time it was in top 5 most read texts, and I didn’t really know why - like what did you all see in it, was it j to spite me? Was it humanising to read a cringey reminder of my awkward voice past-tense, the clumsy way I circled around what I really wanted to say? Was there a kinda humour in the gaps that I left between the feeling I knew I wanted to impart and real living words?ur all mad I stg. For a long time, rewriting it has been on our ~manifestation board~, but I couldn’t really bring myself to re-read it. God, I wonder, in 2025 will I look back at some of the texts I wrote this year and crinkle my nose from the shame of it all?? Lowkey, I hope so. But tbh re-reading why I hate the white cube wasn’t so bad, IN A WEIRD WAY I made some points actually. it’s been 5 years tho, and this week it’s time to re-up why I hate the white cube. 

Quick recap; the white cube is a term in ~art theory~ that describes a kind of ideal situation to view art in. Not to massively simplify, but maybe it’s most helpful in an antagonistic way; let’s call it a pervasive dogma that dictates the terms upon which we ~should~ best view proper art. The white cube works as convention, it says art is best viewed in a room with 4 white walls, clean, neutral uninterrupted by the messy banality of everyday life. It says ‘leave ur shit at the door, we don’t do things like that round here pal’. That life and its messy contextual complication can even be externalised or held at a distance in that way is, obviously, hugely contested. Brian O’Doherty had pulled it apart in the mid-70s in an essay called ‘inside the white cube’. He basically points out that this isn’t like a normal thing to be doing lmao, it’s a bit weird to claim something is this neutral bland non-existent thing, when actually it obviously comes from a historical context because it just popped right out of ~modernism~ and that whole mess, so like… there’s that! He also (I think) said that the white cube’s lack of context was a kind of context AND CONTENT of its own; that there’s NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL OR NOTHING BABE, it was all just made up to position artworks and art itself as ~haughty and timeless~, a highbrow thing for boujie uptown ppl. It basically intellectualised itself by creating an aura, a myth and a lore that said ‘i’m special’, it just kinda declared itself Of Value. But even when those essays were published, people were like ‘ye that’s true and not something that’s deeply shocking to us’, so this is a thing people have been thinking for quite some time. Still, I don’t think we can talk about the white cube and its relevance as a convention (or dogma) that influences the way we make, display, talk about, view art in the past tense like there’s a wholly unrelated way of doing things now. It’s still predominantly The Norm, it’s the base point from which other practices and models deviate; it’s still mainstream and therefore still relevant for me to stand opposed to. 

It’s weird reading my 2015 articulation of hating this white-cube-as-Normal-Practice; I didn’t really like going to galleries back then. I found them to be alienating places, too empty, a kinda pointless pursuit. In the old text, I ask REPEATEDLY: why would I bother going? I really didn’t see the point in it, I didn’t see what galleries had to offer me. Maybe it’s trite, but like… I wasn’t wrong! There wasn’t anything FOR me in them back then. ‘I’m not going to buy the work. I’m not going to write an article about it in Time Out (or Art Review haha). I’m just going to look at it. And that should be enough, but I don’t think it is.’ If I’m completely honest ye, being The White Pube changed me; I went from being at arm’s length, questioning the validity of my own existence in proximity to art, to tripping on the power that was afforded to me by way of this position as critic. It <is> power, being able to define things, probe and question things, frame it all against other things, that’s a huge amount of power. But in all of this, this whole ride, it’s just me that’s changed. The only barrier that’s been broken is a personal and psychological one, it’s my own insecurities and validity in these spaces, it’s me planting my feet when I meet the resistance of a push, rather than going limp and falling out. And that’s a pretty fragile resistance, if it’s just relying on my singular personal will to exist here, that can fall apart so quickly. The question: why do I bother going to these spaces? That’s still relevant; no one has given me a good enough answer yet, 5 years on and I’m still not convinced that galleries are as good as the art they put in them. 

The entire point of the white cube, as a convention and as a dogma, is to construct and preserve the monetary value of contemporary art. As a construct, it is tightly bound to the way capitalism and its requirements have become a foundational logic to art - in its making and display. If you can put it on a wall, you can sell it; if it’s an object, or if it’s a thing that’s objectified, you can sell it; if it’s made by a singular author-as-solitary-genius, you can sell it and hike the prices depending on how believable that singular author’s genius is. The logic of the white cube says that this art thing, its objects are special, investable, they’re commodities to be traded, speculated upon. Hito Steyerl wrote about art as cryptocurrency in 2016 and the only thing I can remember from it is that quote from a fancy investment-bro; ‘Art will effectively continue its structural function as an alternative currency that hedges against inflation and currency depreciation’. Gross. Galleries are fancy shops, they set the scene for us to understand art and its surrounding objects as of value, but not of use. 

This capitalist logic then guts the radical possibility of art; its revolutionary, emancipatory critical potential, whether that’s real or imagined. Art has the potential to transform, beyond girl-boss neoliberal self-care affirmation; it has the potential to act as primer to overhaul, act as salve and balm to our communality despite the world as it rages on. Art is a solid category and practice that has the capacity to shape and expand our revolutionary imaginations; like Lola Olufemi writes in her book <Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power>, ‘Creativity is at the heart of any new world we seek to build… Art is threatening because when produced under the right conditions, it cannot be controlled’. It is also, as Morgan Quaintance writes in <Teleology & the Turner Prize>, ‘a critically engaged field that, for the most part, produces critically engaged actors who are uncomfortable with state power and its various methods of citizen subjection’. For the most part, aside from galleries as structures that condition power and make it cogent in relation to the works on display, art and art-making itself is a pretty radical field of practice. Contemporary art, at times problematically, requires a ‘rigorous conceptual training… developed in response to a field that, since the 1960s, grew uncomfortable with its co-option by powerful governmental, financial, or ideological forces; a field that increasingly produced art that problematized and drew critical attention to its modes of display and exchange, not to mention the culture, society and politics that made that display and exchange possible.’ If art has the capacity to present us with a vision of overhaul, to act as the vessel through which we can facilitate not just the imagining of overhaul, but the very meaty sinewy conception of it; then the white cube, as a convention, equally represents the system through which that radicality is systematically eradicated and co-opted by the very same state entities it is meant to oppose. I hate the white cube because it represents an inertia, a static same-ness. It is the foundational philosophy that means when I look back at an essay I wrote in 2015, I’ll realise: GOD! Nothing has changed but me! I’m the one that’s become less hopeful, less patient, more hard-line in my expectations and demands.

I want to be optimistic, I want to be expansive and generous in my position and writing. Reading back is a bit sad, because at 21 I truly believed that I’d see change to it all in my lifetime (??!). Now, i’m not so sure. I think the most meaningful work we can do is to find ways of making life within, around and across these systems more habitable for us all. I think, back in 2015, when I wrote the first version of this essay, I kinda knew that? ‘Gab just told me a really great story. She was in the toilet of Victoria Miro and she saw fancy soap. Unacceptably fancy soap. Soap that was too fancy to be there (It was Molton Brown). So she robbed it. (It’s ok Victoria Miro you can’t prosecute because of statute of limitations.) But I think that the fancy soap says a lot. I’m not sure what it says, but the fancy soap makes me uncomfortable.’ Whether it’s literally about fancy soap or a metaphor for something more abstract, maybe this anecdote describes something that’s not changed about this all. Like, I think we should all rob the fancy soap - no joke. If being in these spaces is lowkey unbearable: know that the important stuff gets done outside of them, the moral bulk of our work should be outside of them, and if the presence of fancy soap is not just uncomfortable, but proof that they are filthy capitalist pigs, drunk on the luxury of their own sickening wealth, then we can just.. rob it. If the system is the same, despite the fact that we all individually think it fucking sucks, then why do we just let it continue? We can just rob the unacceptably fancy soap for ourselves. And they can’t really stop all of us. 

you can read the first version of this essay, <why i hate the white cube> (2015) if you really really want to, but it will make me cringe so read it and let's never speak of it. ok thanx. 

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