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But it remains obvious that museum visiting, going to art galleries, knowing about contemporary art is now a mass democratic phenomenon in a way that it used not to be. In the first weekend that the new wing of Tate Modern, the Switchhouse, opened, it is said to have had 143,000 visitors, 54,000 on the first Saturday alone. The Royal Academy is not quite in the top ten of visitor numbers. But in the last year, we had more than 400,000 visitors for Painting the Modern Garden and 372,000 for Ai Weiwei — that is, more than 4,000 a day. It is probably not necessary to labour this point too much. Roughly the same number of people that go to the country’s 16,000 churches each year come to the Royal Academy. During my lifetime, going to museums, knowing about art, and going regularly to art exhibitions has changed from being a relatively restricted, occasional, and invariably middle-class, elite experience to being a much more central part of many people’s lives.

Are these two phenomena in some way related? Can one help to understand and interpret the big increase in museum visiting as some form of compensation for the growth of secularisation?

It is worth examining the experience of some of the recent exhibitions at the Royal Academy, what leads so many people to come and visit them, and what sort of experience people get out of them. Let me begin with the Anish Kapoor exhibition which was held in autumn 2009. I’m slightly unusual in that I saw a version of the same exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich the previous year, which included a version of his big work, Svayambh, which consists of a large red wax railway train which glides imperceptibly slowly through a set of grand gallery spaces. What does it mean? Kapoor himself is reticent about attaching a particular meaning to the work and it is not a question that one is necessarily expected to ask. But it is obvious that it is, in some way, ill-defined, about the nature of the relationship between the material and the immaterial, about something larger than what it is physically. Is it a train? Does it contain memories of the trains which went to Auschwitz? Is the red of the wax symbolic of blood? We don’t know. The point is that it is about something large and outside our normal everyday experience.  The work takes us out of ourselves into the experience of scale and — I think it is legitimate to use the word — transcendence.  As Kapoor himself wrote of his work early in his career, when he had an exhibition at the ICA, ‘‘I don’t wish to make sculpture about form . . . I wish to make sculpture about belief, or about passion, about experience that is outside of material concern.”  Or elsewhere, “Material somehow always leads on to something immaterial.”

This sense of something larger happening beyond the character of the individual works was more evident at the Royal Academy, where I think everyone who visited the exhibition was aware that there was something unorthodox about it, something about the experience of the exhibition which went beyond the experience of the individual works. The biggest of the individual works, other than Svayambh, and the one which people are probably most likely to remember, was the big cannon which fired red wax at a wall and the wax gradually accumulated in a big pile on the floor, causing, incidentally, big problems in the management of the exhibition. Again, one is not expected to ask, or to know, what the meaning of the work is.  The point is that it is both meaningless and meaningful: a grand ritual, pregnant with undisclosed and immanent meaning in which the people who were involved in the firing of the cannon did it with unplanned ritual pomp. It is surely not an accident that one is inclined to use the language of religion and spirituality to try to interpret it.

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MarkL
February 21st, 2017
1:02 AM
People will drift back to the church, just as they did in the nineteenth century; now that the politics of wishful thinking has finally collapsed, where else can the soft-hearted go?

amcdonald
February 4th, 2017
10:02 AM
The Louvre has lost 2 million visitors (even before the recent terrorist attack) and Brit museum visitors are declining . The new figures are at the Guardian online. Terrorism and austerity politics are blamed. Artists who voted Remain run the Royal Academy . The BBC is run by a Remain voting management. It`s `analysis` of Brexit and Trump is lazy and sloppy. Not a single word about Camille Paglia or Julie Burchill on the subjects. Isn`t the will of the people sacred? At least David Hockney is capable of a good interview in the Sun online.

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