Emily Pitts writes:

The late work of Mark Rothko is currently on show at the Tate Modern, and much has been written about the innate spirituality of both the artist and the work. Rothko was one of the last of the Modernist artists, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and de Kooning, and many of his ideas and painterly practices looked back rather than forwards. As the critic Robert Hughes observed, he believed that his ‘painting could carry the load of major meanings and possess the same comprehensive seriousness as the art of fresco in the 16th century or the novel in 19th century Russia”.

Rothko at his best should allow us to contemplate, as the shadows of the colour open and close before us with luminosity and movement. Indeed, the artist was very careful in stipulating how his work was shown, hung, and lit because of the importance to him of its impact on the viewer. To experience his low-lit, enveloping canvases is often described as similar to stepping into a cathedral, and reviews and critiques tend to be peppered with religious language.

But visiting the exhibition, one of the striking features is the lack of reverence to be found among the visitors. This is not to say that the work on display is not spiritual, or fails to convey a sense of the sublime. Instead, it is the all but inevitable result of the business of blockbuster art shows. Earlier this month, an article in Marketing Week (not available online without subscription) argued that marketing had ruined art. At the Rothko exhibition the visitor is accosted by the usual array of extras – headsets, printed guides, the line of merchandise on the way out. Because of the large volume of visitors, entry is operated on a timed basis. So perhaps it’s not surprising that visitors are wont to race round, listening to commentary rather than looking at the work, and picking up some postcards at the end. The marketing and packaging of the show doesn’t help the work find its audiences. Instead, visitors seem confused as to how to approach it. There is relatively little of the usual reaction of thought and quiet reflection that are normally associated with Rothko.

This all begs the question of the role of marketing in art; can marketing devalue the work it attempts to promote? If culture becomes just one more way to consume, does art become as disposable as consumer goods? Germaine Greer was quoted in Marketing Week as saying that ‘the art form of the 21st century is marketing’. This may be true, or may be grandstanding (although her example of Damien Hirst creating such a strong brand on a ‘conspicuously threadbare rationale’ resonates) – but when marketing overtakes the art in question, the works seem to become secondary to the gloss of marketing, and the cachet of an exhibition lies in visiting it rather than absorbing it, perhaps marketers have to ask themselves what it is they’re trying to achieve by marketing.

The picture at the top of this post is from The Swelle Life – which has an entertaining post about the Tate’s merchandising of Rothko. (They’re not fans). The Tate Modern exhibition runs until 1st February 2009.

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