5.1 Origins of the White Cube

Reflections on: Thomas McEvilley’s summary of O’Doherty’s 1976 series of articles for ArtForum in his introduction to O’Doherty, B (1999) Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space University of California Press

Traditionally the photograph has been considered in terms of a print, and the high point of recognition for a photographer being an exhibition of their prints in a Fine Art Gallery. Galleries may present very different types of space in terms of lighting conditions, amounts and shape of space and general ‘feel’. But a tendency has been to galleries presenting white ‘neutral’ space. However the apparent ‘neutrality’ of this space needs to be questioned in terms of the implicit meanings this imposes on the image and the presumed ’empty mind’ of the viewer.

I would argue that a more interesting approach would be to acknowledge the importance of both context and the viewer’s life experience in giving meaning to the image, as valuable and integral parts of the art itself. This could mean displaying the same image in different conditions and explicitly promoting discussion of the ways that different life perspectives and everyday experiences of different viewers affect the meanings attributed. This could in turn lead photographers to discover ever more interesting perspectives and innovative approaches to their own work.

For the moment I do not have the equipment or skills to produce for gallery exhibition.

Summary of the article

The main argument underlying the three articles is that the modernist gallery practice of placing artworks in a ‘White Cube’ places them in a sterile environment, depriving them of both connection to outside life and subjective meaning to the viewer, perpetuating the power of an art establishment elite.

The first of O’Doherty’s articles equates the physical space of the White Cube – windows sealed off and white walls with ceiling lights –  to religious spaces and tombs designed to maintain particular social orders and power structures. ‘Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern) there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.’

‘The eternity suggested in our exhibition spaces is ostensibly that of artistic posterity, of underlying beauty, of the masterpiece. But in fact it is a specific sensibility, with specific limitations and conditions that is so glorified. By suggesting eternal ratification of a certain sensibility, the white cube suggests the eternal ratification of the claims of the caste or group sharing that sensibility. As a ritual place of meeting for members of that caste or group, it censors out the world of social variation, promoting a sense of the sole reality of its own point of view and, consequently, its endurance or eternal rightness. Seen thus, the endurance of a certain power structure is the end for which the sympathetic magic of the white cube is devised.’

The second part of the article looks at what this institutionalisation for the spectator ‘In return for the glimpse of ersatz eternity that the white cube affords us – and as a token of our solidarity with the special interests of a group – we give up our humanness and become the cardboard Spectator with the disembodied Eye…tireless and above the vicissitudes of chance and change’ and its underpinnings in modernist aesthetics of formalism and abstraction in the search for ‘transcendence’.

The final part of the article looks at the anti-formalist tradition that questioned and mocked the emptiness and meaninglessness of this white space.

My reflections

Both the original 1976 article and the 1999 book are now quite old, and have – as the end of the article suggests and also the anti-formalist tradition and critique of modernism – now become part of the ‘Canon’.

In relation to photography, the exclusive dominance of the ‘White Cube’ as an aesthetic guardian never really existed – despite the authority of organisations like the Royal Photographic Society. Photography by its nature is copiable, and the wide availability of cheaper cameras has always made it less exclusive. Local camera clubs and their exhibitions have been popular for a very long time – few being able to replicate the ‘ideal gallery conditions’. Technological advances with digital software and the Internet and possibilities for mass self-publishing have significantly increased the production and dissemination options.

There is nevertheless a continuing question of ‘quality’ and relationship of photography to the Fine Art world. There has been an expansion of private and public gallery spaces in large cities like London (eg but not only Photographer’s Gallery) where photography is displayed as ‘White Cube Fine Art’. Work of photographers is now commonly curated as Fine Art exhibitions in galleries like the Tate (See http://www.tate.org.uk/search?q=Photography), National Gallery (https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/search?q=photographers),  and National Portrait Gallery. This inevitably raises issues of the power of the curator and the degree to which they promote or challenge established aesthetic ideas.

In order to justify its display in a gallery such photography has to be ‘special’ – for example very large format images that can only be displayed in a gallery, abstraction or innovative use of traditional or digital techniques or drama in depiction of war and conflict. The gallery space and time is also inevitably a specific time that people set aside to visit a specific space – many after a long and expensive special journey. This means that certain norms of respect for the space and time of other visitors needs to be respected. Normally also the ’empty mind’ to absorb the ‘meaning of the works’ is seen as the ideal – together with reading of books etc on the photographer and work. This is true even of OCA Study visits.

One way possible with photography would be to present prints of the same photograph in very different conditions and spaces as part of the same exhibition, or linked displays. Making the question of context an integral part.

Another way to go beyond the ’empty mind’ approach (even in a White Cube gallery) would be not to replicate in photography the now somewhat cliche anti-formalist exhibitions, but to explicitly encourage the viewers to bring in and exchange ideas from their respective ‘outside worlds’. What does the same photograph, displayed in the same conditions mean to people with very different life experiences? That differential audience response – and even its day by day variation – is an integral part of the meaning. This would however need to go beyond the superficial recording of reactions in visitor’s books etc.

Embracing rather than avoiding this diversity of contextual and audience meaning could lead to exciting new directions for photographers themselves. With the many digital processing options, different contextual effects could be mixed and explored to replicate or challenge them. The very different viewer responses could lead to further processing experiments and/or new images. This also opens up the possibility of more imaginative galleries themselves.

We have also not yet seen the full effects of a move towards ‘virtual galleries’ that can (with virtual reality goggles) replicate the gallery experience – either a White Cube in one’s own home. Or infinite variations and user-generated interpretations.


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