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GEOslant: Children in Galleries
by Alex Field

Children in galleries are a bit like Marmite – you love them or you hate them.  To some, they are unbiased viewers of art, the perfect receptacles for knowledge, waiting to be bitten by the art bug.  To others, they are tiny terrors invading the personal space and peace of everyone around them.  I remember being trapped in a room at the first Museum of Everything show in Primrose Hill, surrounded by screaming brats and vowing that I would never let my hypothetical children ruin anyone else’s quiet Sunday afternoon.  Recently, I’ve started changing my mind and the René Magritte show at Tate Liverpool reminded me why.

Art used to be sacred, the terrain of the rich, religious and aristocratic.  Now it has to be accessible, non-elitist, always in the public domain and referencing themes we can all identify with.  Art has changed its remit; it no longer has to glorify a deity or demonstrate wealth, and can instead offer a commentary on anything that appeals to the artist.  In terms of artistic development, this broadening of scope is wonderful.  However, when it comes to how the gallery space reacts to the speed of developments questions are raised as to how far to push the boundaries, especially for those of us who still believe art to be sacred.  Even now, galleries tend to be visited in hushed tones, but should this awe-struck, respectful silence be replaced by music, for instance, or – even worse – dominated by conversation?  Similarly, should children by allowed to run free or should they be taught that art deserves their best behaviour?  Does it indeed deserve ours?

It seems as though the type of show you visit determines the approaches of those around you.  Tracey Emin’s show at the Hayward Gallery, for example, screamed its content at the viewer and was intermittently filled with the artist’s own voice through a series of video works.  This encouraged visitors to discuss the pieces on display in much more than a whisper, although this may have been because many found the show controversial, if not offensive.  The Magritte exhibition, in contrast, displayed work that set itself apart from the viewer, and as a result the show was practically silent, pierced only by the opinions of the offspring of two visiting families.  The overwhelming feeling you got from watching these kids run from painting to painting, pointing out the bits they liked to their parents, was that they weren’t intimidated by their surroundings.  They did not even register that everyone else was quiet.  They were having a great time and they will most probably go on to associate art galleries with fun.  How many adults do that?

I love the grandeur of institutions like the Royal Academy and the elitism of Mayfair, where you feel special for frequenting such beautiful places.  I even love the achingly hip snobbishness of Shoreditch, which is even worse than west London because an area that youthful and shabby should logically be more welcoming, even to those of us who look ridiculous in skinny jeans.  The vast majority of these places are visited quietly but, as viewers, we could learn something from those kids.  There is definitely something to be said for expressing the joy derived from engaging with new works of art in the very simplest way; with laughter and a big smile.     

~Alex Field, a writer living in London.

Posted by Alex Field on 10/16/11

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