Get it while you can: art that moves, art that stays still

Does the movement of art diminish its cult status? Laurence OP/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Among the millions of works of art that are being transported around the world, one that is currently doing its promotional tour is Jack Kerouac’s famous manuscript for On the Road, written entirely on one long roll of paper during a three-week drug-assisted creativity binge.

Kerouac is said to have taped pieces of paper together to ensure his creativity was not interrupted. The manuscript is a touchstone for Beat generation aficionados and aspiring writers alike, hoping to emulate Kerouac’s creative drive.

In 2007, the manuscript was first on display at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. It was then transported to the Las Vegas Public Library, before moving again to the British Library, and currently resides in Los Angeles, where it is part of an exhibition at the Autry Museum, until January 4, 2015.

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956. Tom Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons

By constantly being on the move, Kerouac’s scroll at once does justice to the novel’s theme of movement, as well as removing the need for certain viewers to make a pilgrimage to the scroll’s location. Yet by being transported around the world, a “priceless” piece of art can begin to seem more like a tradeable commodity and export.

Sociologist John Thompson, in his book The Media and Modernity (1995), discusses this in terms of symbolic valorisation, the phenomenon of turning items with symbolic quality into commodities. He argues that artworks are “subjected, in one way or another, to the process of economic valorisation”.

German theorist Walter Benjamin famously established what he called the “cult” and “exhibitionist” value of art. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) he argued that the cult value of a work of art depended on its being hidden from the interrogative gaze of viewers, while the exhibitionist value saw art being subjected to the eternal gaze of the viewer, transforming both the quality of reproducing art and the way in which we ultimately view artworks.

He famously stated that the aura of art gradually diminishes in the case of exhibition.

The idea that “art is for everyone” has been located in the career of anonymous street artist Banksy, whose work is on exhibition around the world – fleeting and temporary.

A Banksy original, the so-called parachuting rat, was inadvertently removed by street cleaners in Melbourne’s CBD in 2010. Banksy refused to make the stencil again, owing to the theory that art is, ultimately, transitory. Yet despite being on view for the whole world, often in very remote places, even the works of Banksy have proved transferable, with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brat Pitt snapping up their own Banksy memorabilia for millions of dollars while more of his works have been removed from their original locations.

Banksy graffiti, on Rosebury Avenue, London EC1. eadmundo/Flickr, CC BY

One artwork that has resisted the task of transit is the infamous Parthenon Marbles, currently on exhibition at The British Museum. Having taken the immense sculpture from its original location in Athens, Lord Elgin brought the marbles to London in 1816, saving them from likely destruction. Since then, arguments abound as to the marbles rightful place, whether they should be returned to Greece, or whether, having ensured their preservation, they ought to remain in Britain.

A plaque detailing the sculptures in the museum evidently defends its decision in keeping the marbles in London:

Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the building has always been a matter of discussion, but one thing is certain – his actions sparred them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution. It is also thanks to Elgin that generations of visitors have been able to see the sculptures at eye level, rather than high up on the building.

The British are evidently keen to hold onto the marbles, offering reasons that range from understandable to trivial. The Marbles are set to be on permanent display at the British Museum, unless they are taken back to Greece, where they would be likely to remain.

This year, the Guggenheim Museum in New York hosted an exhibition entitled: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe.

Italian Futurism exhibition. Jason Tester/Flickr, CC BY

It is the “first comprehensive overview of Italian Futurism to be presented in the United States,” according to the Guggenheim’s website. The location of the exhibition is particularly interesting considering that the Italian Futurists were, unlike their American counterparts, fascist-sympathisers. What’s more, the Futurists hated museums and loved movement.

Unlike those works of art – Kerouac’s scroll, Italian Futurist artwork – that are constantly touring and filling museums, there are those spaces that the Art Gallery of New South Wales calls permanent galleries, spaces that host artworks which are more or less permanently on display. Yet the gallery is quick to note that “the time varies for each piece depending, for example, on how fragile it is, how popular or significant it is, and the other works that are on display or waiting their turn”.

All of these scenarios offer a partial but significant glimpse into the art industry and its relationship to the movement of artwork. Once a work ceases to retain its popularity, it’s shipped off to another country. The roving exhibition proves popular for those who may not be able to afford to go to certain places where art permanently resides.

On the other hand, the constant movement of art does, slightly, diminish the cult aspect of the work of art. Because art is so often linked to place, certain art works may appear quite out of place in a certain setting (the Parthenon Marbles in Britain, a Banksy hanging on the wall in the Jolie-Pitt household, Italian Futurism in the States, etc.).

The act of movement has notable political, social and cultural impacts on the reception and interpretation of certain artworks, and depending on the artwork’s political history, its relationship to movement may prove either rewarding for viewers or problematic.