Exercise 5.1: Origins of the White Cube

Thomas McEvilley, American art critic and defender of non-western art, prefaces Brian O'Doherty's essays on the art gallery, by referring to how artwork is excluded from the outside world. The white, windowless walls, of the gallery, protectively wrap themselves around the subject which viewers have come to revere. Isolated from the distractions of the outside world, McEvilley explains that the artwork is exempt from any context. Enshrined within a white tomb, the exhibits are mounted and hung, to be untouched by human hands. The complete opposite of a packet of snapshots that have been just developed and passed around family and friends. Fingerprints in the corners became an accepted part of the image. Snapshots would be shared and discussed, whereas in the gallery, the onlooker remains literally at arms length from the photograph. 

Although, O'Doherty notes that:

The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light...The art is free, as the saying used to go, 'to take on its own life.' 

Viewers do see the artwork alongside other exhibits, whether by the same artist or based on a particular theme. Therefore they are free to make comparisons. McEvilley continues by referring to how the artworks are like 'religious artefacts', untouched by time. Of course this may depend on the subject of the image. There may be a number of clues within the image, such as transport or fashion, to suggest a timescale for it.

Furthermore, McEvilley refers to gallery work as being 'in a kind of eternity of display', that gives the gallery a 'limbolike status'. This may have been somewhat true, when O'Doherty's essay was first published in 1976. This was a time before the Internet and mass commercialisation. Nowadays multiple copies of images are abundant on the Internet and printed on diaries, shopping bags, trays notebooks, umbrellas etc. The 21st Century gallery visitor may already have seen the artwork outside the gallery, in another context. Possibly a context in which it was not intended to appear. The visitor to the gallery of today might want to be there to witness the first version of multiple copies that litter our society. McEvilley referred to this as:

an attempt to obtain something by ritually presenting something else that is in some way like the real thing that is desired.

In the gallery of today, copies of an exhibited artwork can then be purchased in the shop afterwords, for the viewer to continue looking in the comfort of their own cube. 

O'Doherty's second section refers to the 'Eye and the Spectator'. McEvilley explains that the religious nature of the gallery experience means that 'we absent ourselves' and become 'the cardboard spectator'. It's as if the gallery experience kills the very spirit of the viewer, who is in limbo.  

Throughout history, civilisations have adorned the walls of their most hallowed places with works of art, from Egyptian tombs to Palaeolithic caves. They have been sheltered and hidden away from the pace of change and other worldly distractions. The new religion is art and this demands a certain degree of reverence that one expects in a place of worship. As a place to display Western easel paintings, to the anti-formalist tradition of transforming the gallery space, the 'white cube' is a distant place that we don't belong.

Whilst completing this exercise, I thought back to when I entered some photographs for a local photography competition. All of the entries were displayed in a gallery. It was an uplifting experience to see my work displayed for others to see. Furthermore, I viewed it in a different way to when it was on my computer screen. Comparing them to other images in the room, I became more critical of them, and inspired to try new things. Therefore, this raises the question of who is the white cube for, the viewer or the photographer?


O’Doherty, B. (1999) Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. University of California Press.