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the guide to alternative behaviour in art galleries


Introduction to Field & Habitus It is fairly well known in most modern, developed societies that there is a distinct expected form of behaviour one should adhere to within the ‘art world’, and in particular when viewing art exhibitions in gallery spaces. The typical visitors to art galleries generally succumb to behaving in an appreciative way, nodding their head in approval at work or complying with the presumed conduct within one thinks they should act in a gallery space or museum. The Field & Habitus project stems from the theory of how the general public should behave within the structured social space of art galleries. Coming from the theories of Pierre Bourdieu,

the term field describes the areas of different interactions within different societies, and cultures that affect daily life. Habitus is then described as the socialised norms or tendencies that guide behaviour and thinking. In regards to this project, the field is the gallery space and the habitus is the list of socially acceptable codes of conduct within that space. The Field & Habitus project aims to introduce art gallery visitors to the notion of exploring and experiencing art works for themselves, rather than sticking rigidly to what is ‘socially acceptable behaviour’. The aim here is not to tell you what to think, but rather to support the visitor in finding their own way of appreciating art.


Unwritten Rules of There is a seemingly recognised decorum of behaviour within art galleries worldwide, where vistors unconsciously know how to conduct oneself. In obvious terms, one should be respectful as the purpose of visiting an art gallery is to view the work of others, and one should have an interest in what they are viewing, else what is the point of being there? Gallery visitors instinctively wander the halls and corridors of the space, browsing around the art works in near silence, with a look of deep interest and understanding on their faces, yet is this really how one should experience art? Surely art is a chance for the viewer to ask questions, create their own answers, and experience it in the way they want to experience it?


Art Galleries

Do you really feel as if you are experiencing the art if you comply with these unwritten codes of conduct?


At the San Francisco Museum of Art, an abstract gets close scrutinity.


Aesthetic experiences can be described roughly as the experience of viewing beauty. Art, in its most straightforward form, is there to be aesthetically pleasing and interesting for the viewer, and therefore that technically eliminates the expected and socially acceptable behaviour from the act of viewing art in art galleries. If art is about viewing something which one personally finds beautiful or engaging, then why should they be told how to behave in response to it? Many artists and art theorists argue that art is all about self expression and exploration, and many concepts of famous modern

art pieces are exactly that - self expression. So, why should the viewer stick to the unwritten regulations of behaviour when trying to understand a painting or sculpture which is all about self expression? How does the artist or the art gallery curator expect the viewer to appreciate the hidden meanings when they have no chance to explore it in their own way? Gallery visitors should be allowed to express their own views on a piece of work, verbally voice their questions and curiosities, and say outright if something is not to their taste. That is how viewing art should be.

Art as aesthetic appreciation, curiosity and taste


Why do peop are sp It’s just an


ple think artists pecial? nother job. - Andy Warhol


Many pieces of modern art have been created using a shock value designed to provoke a response from the viewers. In terms of these works of art, many gallery visitors are unsure of how to respond to what the work is showing them. Should one admire it, putting on the act of being smart and educated enough to understand the underlying concepts? Or is the work there for the viewer to question, and to form their own conclusions and meanings from it?


Examples of the public’s reactions to Modern Art


An example of art designed to evoke in the viewer a question of how to respond was the work entitled ‘My Bed’ by Tracey Emin. The piece has been called the ‘most talked about Turner Prize exhibit in years’ and was a piece to resemble the time in which Emin ‘almost went out of her mind in for four days’ and featured an array of soiled sheets, empty vodka bottles, dirty underwear and used condoms. The installation was an attempt to portray her deepest emotions to the viewer in an attempt to engage them with the

Tracey Emin - My Bed

intimacy behind the objects used. In October 1999, an incident occurred concerning the installation; two Chinese performance artists staged a response to the work by holding a pillow fight on the bed and attempting to drink from the empty vodka bottles. According to reports from the incident, one visitor reported, “Everyone at the exhibition started clapping as they thought it was part of the show. At first, the security people didn’t know what to do”. How would you have behaved in response to this situation?


context of an art gallery, the There have been many exhibitions of artists exporing vistors are essentially looking at a blank piece of paper. the idea of blank canvases and what response that would evoke within the viewer, notably the ‘Art of the Unseen’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, yet how the viewers actually respond to exhibitions like these is rather bizarre. Visitors seem to walk around the gallery space as if the work is fascinating and captivating, making it seem as much like they are thoroughly contemplating the idea of blank space as possible. This fits with the expected behaviour within art galleries, yet when taken out of the

Blank canvas exhibition


Despite the reasonings behind the concepts of the display, they are not all genuinely looking at work

How would you behave in response to an exhibition of blank canvases and empty frames?

as if they understand it, but more for the social status it would give them if they appear to ‘understand’ it.


It’s so fine a terrible to stand blank c


and yet so d in front of a canvas. - Paul Cezanne


Things to do in an Art Gallery


Warning: These are just suggestions, do not take them too seriously, and have respect for the work and other gallery visitors.


The holy grail time making th it takes people


is to spend less he picture than e to look at it. - Banksy


On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was standing near two women who were admiring a painting. One of the women remarked: “What a beautiful painting. I wonder who the artist was?” The other volunteered to find out and walked over to read the wall plaque beside it. She reported that the painting had been done by Circa, in 1878. “Oh,” the first woman said, “of course, Circa the Greek.” “No,” the second woman replied. “You’re thinking of Zorba. Circa was Italian.” Kenneth R. Lee An artist asked the gallery owner if there had been any interest in his paintings on display at that time. “I have good news and bad news,” the owner replied. “The good news is that a gentleman enquired about your work and wondered if it would appreciate in value after your death. When I told him it would, he bought all 15 of your paintings.” “That’s wonderful,” the artist exclaimed. “What’s the bad news?” “The guy was your doctor...”

Art Gallery Anecdotes


Liz goes to her first show at an art gallery and is looking at the paintings. One is a huge canvas that has black with yellow blobs of paint splattered all over it. The next painting is a murky gray color that has drips of purple paint streaked across it. Liz walks over to the artist and says, “I don’t understand your paintings.” “I paint what I feel inside me,” explains the artist. “Have you ever tried Alka-Seltzer?” she asked!

Recently a guy in Paris nearly got away with stealing several paintings from the Louvre. However, after planning the crime, breaking in, evading security, getting out and escaping with the goods, he was captured only two blocks away when his Econoline van ran out of gas. When asked how he could mastermind such a crime and then make such an obvious error, he replied:- “I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh.”


Further Reading The Field & Habitus project aims to observe, record and challenge the behaviour of art gallery visitors in response to the works being exhibited. This is simply the beginning: we expect a revolution amongst the general public in art galleries, experiencing and questioning the art in their own unique ways, pushing the boundaries of

how one should behave when viewing works of art, and developing their own tastes and appreciations for art. For obvious reasons, this project is to be taken lightheartedly, but there are also many books and essays written on the subject which may be of interest.

‘The Love of Art’ by Pierre Bourdieu & Alain Darbell “Distinction - A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” by Pierre Bourdieu ‘Inside the White Cube - The Ideology of the Gallery Space’ by Brian O’Doherty ‘Art: What is it good for?’ by Dolan Cummings


Produced by The Field & Habitus Project for art gallery visitors in 2013/14

Final Publication  

Context of Practice