Originally published by the Phillip Feldman Gallery, 2010
This is not 18th century Paris, but you may hear its echoes whistling through the millions of holes made in thousands of white walls by nails meant to support the artworks of 300 years worth of artist production. The Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, began in 1667 as a semi-public annual exhibition of graduate work that was contained in (and named for) one room, the Salon Carre, in the Louvre. In order to fit them all in, paintings were closely hung, crowding the walls from eye-level to distant ceiling. It seems that this presentation method was less a choice then a necessity. Or, perhaps it had something to do with pre-existing conventions of display in private picture galleries(1) and wunderkammers,(2) where a viewer would see objects and images stacked upon each other, existing in simultaneous exotic relation, rather than as a series of autonomous objects, floating semi-sequentially in the neutral white space of a modern museum.
In her essay "On Style," Susan Sontag writes, that “what is inevitable in a work of art is the style…The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives...”(3). If we apply her words to exhibition style, what the Salon offered in content it also offered in its inevitable exhibition form. Salon-style is still alive in contemporary art and design, though it is now more often strategically applied than necessitated. We encounter it in gallery storage and museum reserves(4); in works like Fabiola(5) by Francis Alÿs; The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango)(6) mounted by Group Material; and Untitled (Beauty)(7) by Rikrit Tiravanija; in Henry Miller’s bathroom(8); in the sale of goods(9); and even now on Wall Street(10).
As a model, this way of arranging and presenting images and artworks has come to signify certain things. In the short film Henry Miller Asleep and Awake, Miller talks about salon-style as being a model that encourages free association. “That's the beauty of it,” he says “it can take you anywhere.” A viewer can get lost in and between the array of pictures and objects in such an exhibition. That is part of the wonder of a collection: its regenerative seriality, the interplay between the whole and its individual parts, and between infinity and boundary, inclusion and exclusion.(11)
Inclusion is emphasized in the works made by Group Material and Tiravanija, where in both cases the idiom of salon-style is a natural fit for the democratization of artistic display and consumption. The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango) was an exhibition that took place at an alternative artist-run storefront at 244 East 13th St. in New York in 1981. It was made up of aesthetic objects collected from the people in the surrounding neighborhood. “People’s Choice was produced with the idea that the objects culled from friends and neighbors would produce an alternative archive of the experiences of art.”(12) But this project was more complex than a feel-good, community building gesture or a simplistic reaction to traditional artistic hierarchies. Group Material insisted on a curatorial project that was in a sense inclusively antagonistic and showed things that didn't follow the traditional artistic values of the art world proper.
A similar undercurrent of antagonism exists in Tiravanija’s, untitled 1994 project, in which he moved all the work in storage at Jack Hanley Gallery to the walls, brought in pots, pans and propane and cooked Thai curry for gallery goers in the middle of the floor. In these respective reconfigurations of the contemporary gallery space, all artworks are given equal weight. There is no correct way to read through the displays or encounter the works within. All work is hung without the mediation of the traditional processes of selection and curation. This politics of inclusion makes a mess of the experience of art appreciation in many ways, but it also lends visibility to processes and politics of art making and viewing that often remain invisible.
Francis Alÿs’ project Fabiola also draws on the democratic associations of salon-style, pointing to its comparative potential, and to its importance to the historical relation between art and public life. In this project, Alÿs presents over 300 paintings of St. Fabiola, which he collected from flea markets and junk shops around the world. These images are all copies, most made as devotional objects by amateur painters, and are based on a lost original painted by Jean-Jacques Henner, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1885.
Fabiola tells an egalitarian story about the way that a public looks at and engages visual art. Up until the mid-18th century the appreciation of high art was not a populist pastime. But, in 1737 the Paris Salon became the first regularly repeated, free, and secular display of contemporary art in Europe. This was the first public exhibition of its kind, one that was mounted to encourage a primarily aesthetic response in large numbers of people. “Visual art had of course always figured in the public life of the community that produced it: civic processions up the Athenian Acropolis, the massing of Easter penitents before the portals of Chartres cathedral…these would just begin the list of occasions in which art of the highest quality entered the life of the ordinary European citizen…But, the eighteenth-century Salon, however, marked a removal of art from ritual hierarchies of earlier communal life.”(13)
Over the next century, as the Salon grew in size and influence, new venues were established and hanging committees were convened to decide whose work should go where. Most importantly perhaps, new voices were heard, less so from the artists, as the Salon was notoriously conservative and continued to be sponsored by the crown, but more from the audience who grew in number, diversity and opinion. At the height of the Salon, the exhibition hall saw over 25,000 visitors a day. The popularization and visual spectacle of the Salon created a new kind of common space, where for the first time people from different economic and social classes could mix, could look at the same thing at the same time, and answer back in the form of critique, criticism, and in some cases, creation.
These first explorations into the land of art criticism were independent ventures, not publicly printed statements, and they were released as small pamphlets. These publications were discouraged by the state who was invested in upholding a certain standard of French academic artistic tradition. Writers from Etienne La Font de Saint-Yenne, a relative amateur in the arts, to more distinguished writers like Denis Diderot, Henrich Heine, Emile Zola and Charles Baudelaire tended the seedlings of art criticism, writing reviews of the annual Salons over a nearly 120-year period. Their texts ranged from short descriptive, critical pieces about the work of one or two artists, to elongated treatises on the state of painting, or luxury’s influence on the fine arts.(14)
In some cases, in the early years of the Salon’s introduction to public life, the eye of judgment was also turned on the visitors to the exhibition themselves. Many pamphlets featured caricatures of the rabble in the art gallery.(15) In looking at the extended conversation that came to surround the fine arts in France at the time, it is clear that this new opportunity for public dialogue about pictures was deeply influential to not only the discipline of aesthetics, but to the larger social fabric and political life of France. The growth of this commons along with the prevalence of another kind of Salon, the independent intellectual and social gatherings where people met to debate, entertain and exchange ideas, was pivotal in the emergence of a public sphere—an arena of public life that was not directly controlled by the state.(16)
The decline of the official Salon, in the mid to late 1800’s in many ways signaled the rise of the avant-garde. The public had developed a strong voice, and in 1863, when a startling number of works by reputable artists were rejected by the Salon jury, there was an outcry.(17) Napolean III ordered an alternative exhibition be mounted nearby the official Salon so that the public could evaluate the jury’s decisions for themselves. This adjacent exhibition was delicately named the Salon des Refuses or Exhibition of Rejects. Despite its derogatory title, the establishment of this secondary exhibition was a major step in weakening the exclusivity and monolithic power of the Salon. The accruing number of artists experimenting with Impressionism was also a growing challenge to the core aesthetic values of the Salon jury members who were often reluctant to include more experimental work. Subsequently, independent exhibitions, such as the Salon des Independants, The Salon d'Automne, and the Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, began rising up.
This simplified history of the Salon, outlines a significant shift, away from art that was made for the collections of a select and wealthy few, to art that was made for the visual consumption and contemplation of individuals within a general public. What is relevant here, is the rise of the visual style of salon as a populist model of exhibition and the practice of criticism and public judgment that accompanied it. These are crucial developments to keep in mind when thinking of the structure of present-day biennials or the ever-more populist missions of our contemporary museums and universities. Maybe, to really appeal to a mass audience and get more people through the doors of today’s artistic institutions it isn’t so much about educational outreach, blockbuster shows, or free beer, but rather about changing the mode of display: show all of the art; hang the whole collection floor to ceiling, and spread everything in the archive on the floor.
1. David Teniers the Younger, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, c. 1650. 2. Ferrante Imperato, Dell'Historia Naturale, 1599. 3. Susan Sontag, “On Style” in Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 1966), 33. 4. Bowes Museum Storage, United Kingdom. 5. Francis Alÿs, Fabiola, 2009. 6. The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango), 1981. 7. Untitled (Beauty), Rirkrit Tiravanija,1994. 8. From Henry Miller Asleep and Awake, 1975. 9. From the internet. 10. The Occupation of Wall Street, 2011. 11. Susan Stewart, On Longing (Durham: Duke University Press), 157-161.1
13. Thomas Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 1-3.
14. See Art in Theory: 1648-1815, Eds. Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2000).
15. Honoré Daumier, on the crowds of the Salon, 1852
16. See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).
17. Édouard Manet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863.