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DAVID COHEN's column

June 1 , 2001

Noises Off in the Sacred Grove
Philip Hensher is my pin-up this week. I thought it was just my "mishegas", this thing I have about noise in museums, that I had to learn to "get over it" and love ambient effects, video soundtracks, clanking kinetic sculptures, acoustiguides, and droning docents. A while ago, just when my greencard came through and I was emboldened by the fantasy that I could write about anything anywhere, I did a piece titled "The Muzak Nation" for a mainstream internet magazine which bewailed the wailing soundtrack of America, but my editor there had me pipe down, gently but firmly letting me know that my piece was "a bit of a rant". But now it seems I'm not alone. Someone else has noticed that museums are increasingly in competition with shopping malls to see who can blast the most extraneous electronic noise at its visitors. Mr. Hensher's hilarious but spot-on polemic, "Quiet Please", the Art and Music column in the current issue of Modern Painters, should be compulsory reading for all those trainee curators at fancy curator courses sprouting up like mushrooms around the world (another hobby horse, but I'll spare you this week). Here is Philip Hensher on the joys of ambient gallery going:

"Sam Taylor-Wood's famous video, in which a man with an amazing bounding willy is accompanied by the high kitsch of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, seemed to have its volume turned up far too high. You could still hear its plangent strains rooms away, and, looking at Francis Bacon, the naff soundtrack to the emotions was still insisting that you find everything incredibly poignant… Bacon has his own emotional implication; Barber has his; and one of them is going to lose, and one of them does."

Mr. Hensher's museum-muzak bad trip occurred recently at Tate Modern. I had my first one at the old Tate, I think in 1985, so the problem isn't new. I was trying to look at a Rothko with a Tinguely in the next room clanking away. Of course, clanks are nowhere near as intrusive as adagios; a clank is merely a pain in the butt, whereas an adagio is "in-yer-soul". Mr. Hensher humorously wonders, following the Bacon-Barber [shop] duet, "I thought this catastrophic spill was an accident, but now I'm not so sure. They might well have meant it."

Mr. Hensher's thesis is simple and sane, and it seems incredible that it should even need to be stated: "If you try to walk while juggling, or playing the piano, or painting, it soon becomes apparent that the brain is switching rapidly from one activity to the other, and neither is being carried out at full capacity." Curators should be marched off somewhere, he argues, and forced to shout a thousand time, in unison, "I WILL NOT FUCK WITH THE BRAIN."

It seems to me that we need to distinguish here between at least three different ills: general noise pollution, soundtrack spillage, and curatorial mind-bending. These ills overlap, but they can't be solved collectively, because some are simply stylistic, and have to do with decorum, a fashion that can change, while others, as Mr. Hensher realises, are profoundly ideological. "They might have meant it". It should also be acknowledged that artists are entitled to want to create a gesamtskunstwerk, a kinesthetic experience that fuses sight and sound (as, after all, do operas and movies). But the curator has the responsibility, if showing such a work, to isolate the viewer from its intrusion into the ambient space of other monoesthetic works in the vicinity.

"Edutainment" managers should really start to think about the effects of the new museum environment on visitors' nerves. There are increasingly few places in our civilization to which people can retreat from inflicted noise (home sure ain't one of them if you have kids or neighbors) to think quietly, to experience things that matter in the kind of calm and isolation they demand. Go to a movie in a multiplex and the second you are out of the screening room there is piped muzak to shatter the illusion of alternative reality you have paid $10 to experience. Go to a jazz club or rock concert, and the second the live performers finish, or take a break, the management pumps in recorded sound. No space to think, to feel, to reflect. Does it make me sound like an old fogey to say that the museum, the "sacred grove", should be different? Probably. You'd be amazed at the highbrow institutions that are plumping for piped music. The first that I experienced (and others who have been to the museum swear they didn't hear it, so let's hope it was a one-off experimental abberation) was the Morandi Museum in Bologna. I believe they were playing the Four Seasons (how original). This was about ten years ago. More recently, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City had a go at piping in liturgical settings in its display of illuminated missals. Only for a while. A missile that bombed, let's hope. But live music can be as irritating as piped. When will the Metropolitan Museum face the music, and admit that the string quartet on Fridays and Saturdays in their acoustically disastrous lobby is just tacky, a bit more noise in an already polluted atmosphere?

Of course, the Met means well. They want the late-nights to feel festive. But once you lay on easy listening, easy viewing is around the corner. Deafening and dumbing down go hand in hand. I suggested earlier that there is a difference between bad style and bad ideology, thinking that one can be fixed easily, the other needs a profounder challenge. But actually, they are more related than they might seem. Bad style is symptomatic of populism. No one should feel intellectually threatened by museum going. It should be light entertainment. Bad ideology has to do with over-intellectualisation, seemingly the opposite syndrome, in which curators are hell-bent on imposing a hefty agenda, having us think hard (their thoughts of course). Where these two extremes meet is in the assumed passivity of the viewer. Whether we are relaxed or stirred-up (comotozed or brain-washed) is ultimately academic.

The museum's most engaged visitor - who is the one, frankly, that all policies should be geared towards - needs time and space to cultivate the level of attentiveness that great art demands, and rewards. The philosophical distinction between time and duration comes into play here. Noise pollution, piped music, sound effects, acoustiguides (whether listened to or overheard), imposed visual narratives, mind-controlling over-design, verbal framing of images, all these militate against real time and impose duration. Real time is about individual liberty, duration is about regimentation. Which do we want our museums to be about?