And the best is silence

Image of Peter Aspden

A couple of weeks back, I saw Kraftwerk playing the first of their celebrated series of concerts at Tate Modern. Unlike most, including this newspaper’s reviewer, I found it a chilly, soulless occasion. I don’t dispute that the band was groundbreaking back in the day, when a single called “Autobahn” made its improbable way towards the top of the charts. Monotony never sounded more modish. But even back then, I considered the song a novelty record, and thought that its original 22-minute length was some kind of exotic German hoax, like Wagner.

The group’s performance at Tate featured 3D graphics that were widely lauded for their innovative design, but which actually resembled the look-and-learn illustrations of a children’s story. Noddy goes to Valhalla and falls asleep to the synthesiser that everyone forgot to switch off. If the cut-out Volkswagens didn’t get you, then perhaps the lyrics did? “Radioactivity. Is in the air for you and me.” To watch the ageing hipsters of the audience nodding their greying heads (there was nothing so energetic as dancing) to such robotic ruminations was to see an entire gallery subjected to mass hypnosis. Gamma rays, perhaps?

A few days later I found myself enraptured by another group of Germans in a place of high culture. Well not strictly speaking Germans: the five men in armour huddled in the foreground of Erasmus Grasser’s splendid wooden crucifixion scene in Berlin’s Bode Museum are presumed to be Roman soldiers. But something in their appalled physiognomies made me think of the models Grasser must have used for his late 15th-century minor masterpiece.

The scene is full of drama and tender detail, not least in the broken figure of the Madonna to the right of the soldiers. But it was the expressions of the men in armour that intrigued me. They have done their duty, but they know something is wrong. They have committed untold cruelty – never mind the slumped figure of Christ, look at the crucifixions on either side of him, the victims’ arms wrenched behind the crossbar of their crosses – but they seem to realise that their actions will have wide and solemn ramifications. I spent a good half-hour studying these complex portrayals of human anguish, and those around them, and found the scene both moving and artistically satisfying.

There is, I confess, another fact that brought these two experiences together in my mind. The Kraftwerk concert was what they like to call the hottest ticket in town. Even an institution with as deft a sense of its own audience as Tate suffered a crash in its computer system on the day tickets went up for sale from the frenzied demand. The gallery’s majestic Turbine Hall was packed for the occasion. There could have been no better advertisement for British contemporary culture’s ability to engage with a mass audience.

The Bode Museum, on the other hand, as I walked into it on a frosty Saturday morning, was empty. I mean properly empty. There was, custodians aside, not a single person around me. Considering this was one of the greatest collections of European sculpture and Byzantine art, and notwithstanding the weather, I was more than a little surprised.

But it also had a remarkable effect on me. I automatically slowed down as I walked around. I looked at the works more carefully. I felt easily able to immerse myself in their detail. I was drawn to Grasser’s crucifixion scene and studied it properly, reluctant to turn away. The silence and the solitude cast a spell. I didn’t want to leave the museum.

As I wandered around the remainder of the galleries – by now there were a few more visitors milling around – I came close to the phenomenon known as Stendahl syndrome, the feeble surrender of the senses to dizziness and disorientation when confronted by an overwhelming amount of beautiful art in one place. I had never before seriously looked at ivory miniatures from Constantinople, or the soft marble folds of Baroque sculpture. But because I was alone, and undistracted, I allowed my concentration to focus solely and rigorously on the splendour around me.

This would have pleased Wilhelm von Bode, spiritual founder of the museum, who conceived of its collection as being like the drawing room of a refined household. The effect was not lost on me; but only because I had the place to myself.

This of course is utterly anathema to how culture is presented and perceived in the 21st century, and rightly so. In our anti-elitist age, to draw huge crowds is everything. The aim is to turn museums into vibrant, noisy spaces, where new and young audiences establish their preliminary engagements with culture. That is the way to keep the tills ringing in the coffee shops, and to earn the absurdly grudging respect of the political classes. Imagine trying to justify government subsidy by appealing to intensity of experience, rather than visitor numbers.

But we would do well to find something of a balance between the buzz and the contemplative silence. We are private, as well as social animals. And like another famously pleasurable experience, a lot of art really does work best one-on-one. There are better places to fill your head with noise. Like motorways.

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