We asked three MONDO writers to review their Nuit Blanche experiences. Here’s part three.
By Matt McGeachy
The third annual Scotiabank Nuit Blanche lit up the night from sunset to sunrise on Saturday, and from the throngs of people on the street, it would seem that it was a resounding success. By most estimates, over a million people were downtown to participated in the event; the bars were full until the wee hours, people were enjoying themselves, and no unsavoury incidents were reported. For a night, public space was abundant and the citizens of the GTA ruled the streets. This year’s Nuit Blanche was a civic triumph. Unfortunately, it was also an artistic failure.
According to Toronto Star urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume, “That tired old question – Is it art? – no longer matters.” (Toronto Star October 6, 2008) For Hume and other Nuit Blanche sympathizers, this seems to be a primary virtue of the event; or, perhaps they assume that no matter what goes up must be art. After all, it is an institution now, isn’t it?
But for many people that fundamental question — Is it art? — is part of the function of art-making and art viewing. By committing to an object as a work of art, we invest it with value and view it as something different from a mere object. By insisting on an object as a work of art, we help to create one. (Readers who wish to pursue this idea in-depth will find Arthur Danto’s writings invaluable.)
The displays at Nuit Blanche absolutely demanded that we, the viewers, ask these questions. Unfortunately for these objects, ordinary viewers are not as stupid as some artists would like to hope. For those who take the time to answer these questions, the results will be quite disappointing.
At their best, the displays from Nuit Blanche were clever and effective; at their worst, they were downright patronizing. Waterfall, at the Toronto Hydro Building, was extremely photogenic but exceptionally disappointing up close. It may be defended on aesthetic grounds — while trivial and conceptually weak, it was pleasant to look at (in photos). Ultimately, however, I would contend that Waterfall is banal: so much so that I can’t say much more about it!
I’m willing to go out on a limb and defend the dropped ceiling in the alleyway at Massey Hall, though it thoroughly irritated most people. It wasn’t genius, it wasn’t beautiful, but it accomplished something by forcing you to view space in a different way. By confining you with the garbage, it allowed you to absorb your surroundings, which you could have otherwise completely ignored. Though many found it patronizing, I found it effective (though this is admittedly a weak defense of art).
Perhaps the best example of patronizing work was that damn inflated cone at the Eaton Centre, Into the Blue. I came upon it from the second floor, and looked down to find a throng of confused people staring up at the inverted cone. At the inside of the cone. And taking pictures. Perhaps artist Fujiwara Takahiro had a big joke in mind, at the viewers’ expense. In any event, a reliance on viewer ignorance is patronizing and alienating. Is it any wonder that the Conservatives are claiming that ordinary people just don’t care much about art?
Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be this way. Much of the art I see in galleries these days takes its responsibility to the viewer seriously. Of course, institutions tend to dislike raising questions, and there is little doubt that Nuit Blanche has become a Toronto institution. But if it’s going to be about art, perhaps next year the curators should take more care to realize that it’s the viewers who make the art.
Of course, if all we want is a big party, that’s fine in a general way. But let’s drop the pretense of art until the objects show us a little respect.