Few essays have garnered as much immediate response as Brian O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube,” originally published as a series of three articles in Artforum in 1976, and subsequently collected in a book of the same name.1 According to myth, the issues of Artforum containing O’Doherty’s texts sold out very quickly, and as he himself has remarked, many artists he spoke to at the time told him that they themselves had been thinking about writing something similar. This is to say that the main concern of the essay—how to deal with the white cube convention for gallery design—was shared by many of his contemporaries. Naturally, O’Doherty was writing not only within the specific context of post-minimalism and conceptual art of the 1970s, but also from the point of view of artistic practice. Aside from being a prominent critic, O’Doherty was also an installation artist, having worked since 1972 under the name of Patrick Ireland (in protest against the British Army’s involvement in Ulster). As both theorist and practitioner, insider and outsider, he was not in a bad position to examine the ideology of something as peculiar as the modern gallery space, the much loved and maligned “white cube.”
In many ways, O’Doherty’s point is as simple as it is radical: the gallery space is not a neutral container, but a historical construct. Furthermore, it is an aesthetic object in and of itself. The ideal form of the white cube that modernism developed for the gallery space is inseparable from the artworks exhibited inside it. Indeed, the white cube not only conditions, but also overpowers the artworks themselves in its shift from placing content within a context to making the context itself the content. However, this emergence of context is enabled primarily through its attempted disappearance. The white cube is conceived as a place free of context, where time and social space are thought to be excluded from the experience of artworks. It is only through the apparent neutrality of appearing outside of daily life and politics that the works within the white cube can appear to be self-contained—only by being freed from historical time can they attain their aura of timelessness.
Enter the white cube, with its even walls and its unobtrusive artificial lighting—a sacred space that (despite its modern design) resembles an ancient tomb, undisturbed by time and containing infinite riches. O’Doherty uses this analogy of the tomb and the treasury to illuminate how the white cube was constructed in order to give the artworks a timeless quality (and thus, lasting value) in both an economic and a political sense. It was a space for the immortality of a certain class or caste’s cultural values, as well as a staging ground for objects of sound economic investment for possible buyers. O’Doherty thus reminds us that galleries are shops—spaces for producing surplus value, not use value—and as such, the modern gallery employs the formula of the white cube for an architectonics of transcendence in which the specificities of time and of place are replaced by the eternal. In other words, the white cube establishes a crucial dichotomy between that which is to be kept outside (the social and the political) and that which is inside (the staying value of art).
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