HIGH VERSUS LOW ART: WHAT DESERVES A SPACE IN THE GALLERY?

by Jess Howard

Often, we start out with an initial opinion of a topic, event or article, and end up completely changing sides once we have engaged in an in-depth exploration, and this is exactly what has happened with an article I recently read.

In early May 2016, a particularly scathing opinion piece was written by Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones regarding the presence of magazine covers in gallery spaces. The article, titled ‘Kate’s Vogue shots shouldn’t be in a gallery. They’re not art.’ discusses Jones’ opinions on whether or not photographs of Kate Middleton have the right to be hanged in The National Portrait Gallery. Regardless of how we feel about the photographs, or indeed the monarchy, it does raise an important question. Namely, what constitutes high or low art, and what is deserving of exhibition space.

Gallery spaces and museums were created as a source of education and entertainment, not sales.

The photographs, taken by photographer Josh Olins for the June 2016 cover of British vogue, and selected to appear as part of the ‘Vogue 100: A Century of Style’ exhibition, have been described by Nicholas Cullinan, the director of The National Portrait Gallery, as capturing ‘the duchess exactly as she is – full of life, with a great sense of humour, thoughtful and intelligent, and in fact, very beautiful’. Whilst I am not disputing the quality of these images, my opinion of Olin’s work, or whether or not Middleton embodies this description, there is no avoiding the fact that they were taken for the cover of a magazine. Undoubtedly, in this instance, it is not the quality of the images that has encouraged curators to decide that they are worthy of the gallery space, but the context.

If we allow or encourage these images to be displayed in such a location, does it mean that other images taken or produced for journalistic purposes have a right to be there too? Would this include advertising campaigns? Or even a cartoon drawn for the morning paper (my favourite as a child was Rupert the Bear, which my Nan would read to me every time I went to visit). I have a friend who is very much into reading comic books, these images have been produced with unquestionable talent, technique and skill, but the chance of them appearing in a high end gallery space any time soon is slim to none (despite Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation). Why are gallery curators allowing these images to be present in such a reputable space, when Olins does not even consider himself to be an artistic photographer?

( Calvin and Hobbes discussing art © Bill Watterson )

That is not to say that photographs taken for advertising or journalistic purposes do not have merit. They require a specific skill in their own right, having to promote a product whilst attracting the attention of millions of readers or viewers. They must be engaging, effective, and relay a message – subtly at times – to an audience with the purpose of increasing sales or audience interaction. But this is not the purpose of art in the gallery space, and examples of it doing so are few and far between. Gallery spaces and museums were created as a source of education and entertainment, not sales. Arguably, including images taken for such purposes represents the business and media world infiltrating a seemingly sacred space.

With the UK Government’s seemingly blasé attitude to the arts, and the ever increasing cuts to budgets and resources across the country, many would say that such promotion within the gallery is a good thing, that by combining media advertising and the visual arts there will be an influx of financial support that may rectifying the damage done to such an important part of culture. But, though this will inevitably happen, I would be inclined for now to agree with Jones’ opinions. The quality of Olin’s work and Middleton’s beauty is irrelevant, and they are not deserving of a place in one of the world’s most prestigious galleries.

Featured image © Anthony Devlin/PA

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