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With a modish disinclination even to finish one of its own sentences, the Victoria and Albert Museum boldly called its groundbreaking summer exhibition on David Bowie David Bowie Is. This was to emphasise the protean nature of an artist who has rarely allowed himself to settle into any one means of creative expression, as well as to let the question of Bowie’s identity hang teasingly over the show. There was no chronological neatness in David Bowie Is, nor any attempt – how naive! – to encapsulate his life’s work. The message was: David Bowie is anything and everything we want him to be. Cute.
Here is my own attempt to end the sentence: David Bowie Is ... not to be studied seriously.
That is the feeling I had when I saw the notice that prohibited not only photography but also any sketching in the exhibition. Bowie, as evidenced by his own drawings and photographs on display, may have been a pop culture plunderer of the rarest talent. But in this context at least, he himself was not to be plundered.
Bad luck on all those art college students who came to witness, and draw inspiration from, one of the most culturally promiscuous and fleet-footed performers of the postwar era. They had to shuffle along, pencils in pocket, committing to memory the visual riches on show.
The draconian measure was taken because of the exhibition’s very popularity. It was visited by 312,000 people, the museum’s highest attendance since its Art Deco show of 2003. More than 65,000 of those tickets were sold even before the exhibition opened. Online bookings were sold out by its second week. Faced with that kind of demand, the museum says it needed to enforce the no sketching rule to “maintain visitor flow”.
“We actively encourage sketching across the rest of the museum and for people to use the permanent collections as inspiration for their own creativity,” said a spokeswoman for the V&A, instantly consigning all those Ziggy wannabes to the Sicilian ceramics on the upper floors.
There is no use pretending that there is not a difficult issue here. David Bowie Is prompted an existential dilemma for the museum: what should its audience be, and how should it engage with its collection? As an educational institution, the V&A is obliged to show its commitment to academic values. These include depth of study, concentration, intensity of purpose. If it is anything, the museum is a refuge from superficial encounters and hasty judgments.
I love to see students sketching in a gallery or museum. The history of art is built on their studiously sketched outlines, hoping to find innovation in emulation, and originality out of reproduction. Here is the organic response to the past that nudges art into new directions. No one stood more keenly on the shoulders of giants than Bowie himself, and what a powerful blend he concocted.
And yet the museum is also committed, these days more than ever, to making itself as accessible as possible. David Bowie Is was a blockbuster show, and one of the highlights of London’s cultural year. It had the allure of an arena concert or a best-selling West End show. Queues for day tickets snaked from the V&A’s entrance from 6am every morning. That is no small accomplishment.
We have to take at face value the museum’s argument that admission numbers would have been compromised by lingering sketchers. The organisation of visitor “flow” may sound banal and bureaucratic but it is part of the vocabulary of a successful and popular institution. Perhaps specially allocated days might have been established which allowed sketchers to work in peace; but that would have kept others out of the show.
The dilemma in any case reflects a more subtle philosophical shift in cultural thought. The design of David Bowie Is did not, in truth, encourage very much in the way of detached study. The soundtrack of the individual headphone sets (supplied by an exhibition sponsor, Sennheiser) was persistent and occasionally confusing. The jumble of sounds and images that we were asked to “flow” between at a brisk pace was flashy and disorienting.
This was an exhibition that took us into a mind, rather than ask us to reflect on the quality of its workings. It was, to use one of the buzzwords of current artistic thinking, an immersive experience. It had much more in common with Bowie’s electrifying concerts of the 1970s than with one of that era’s scholarly museum shows. You could draw a line from the Thin White Duke tour to David Bowie Is that would tell the story of how Britain’s most august cultural institutions plugged into the energy of popular culture, and helped to revivify themselves.
A cautionary note: it is not a trick that can be pulled off regularly. The recollection of seeing Kylie Minogue’s hot pants on the V&A’s walls – not much to sketch there – in a flimsy and ill-considered 2007 show devoted to the singer reminds us that there are not so many David Bowies around who can bear such a treatment.
If a museum, of all places, prohibits us from standing for a moment to engage creatively with part of its collection, it had better be immersing us in something rather special. It got away with it this time. David Bowie Is ... well, unique.
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