Rian O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube”


The book comprised O’Doherty’s famous essays “Notes on the Gallery Space,” “The Eye and the Spectator,” and “Context as Content,” published in 1976 in Artforum magazine. It also includes the article “The Gallery as a Gesture,” published ten years later. In these writings, the author explores the social and cultural background of the exhibition gallery space and its interaction with the observer and the artist. This paper summarizes the introduction to Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube and provides a critical analysis of the ideas and arguments presented there.

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Inside the White Cube: Introduction

O’Doherty’s significant merit is that his critical essay shifted the focus from the art objects themselves to the context in which they are presented. This is probably the first author to examine the historical preconditions of modernist galleries, their hidden functions, and their influence on the spectator and his or her “Eye.” However, the most significant theoretical discovery of an art critique was that the context absorbed the objects and turned into the object itself.

It should be emphasized that O’Doherty uses the white cube metaphor to describe the modernist museum space with its covered windows, white walls, and light flowing from the ceiling. Gallery interiors described as “clean, white, synthetic, empty” are transposing the observer into another dimension where there are no such concepts like space and time, and artworks are isolated from reality (Pinheiro 58). Art here is liberated from the dynamics of life and exists according to its timeless laws, and the objects are sacralized through the context in which they are placed. According to O’Doherty, “in this context, a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object” (15). The author notes the similarity of these expositions with the interior design and the underlying meaning of religious buildings of the Middle Ages and ancient times.

Since life is banished from the white cube, it is not a living person who comes here, but a dead senseless perception. O’Doherty describes the confrontation between the Eye and the Spectator: while the Eye is adapted to the pictorial surface, the mainstream of modernism, three-dimensional art forms, including collage and performance, needs the Spectator. Nevertheless, neither the Eye nor the Spectator are individual persons; entering the white cube, they leave their identities behind.

The author states that “the Eye is the only inhabitant of the sanitized installation shot,” and “the Spectator is not present” (O’Doherty 42). Thus, the timeless art of modernist galleries does not need a living person and does not interact with the viewer. Being in the limbo, they require a dispassionate perception, expressed in the Eye and the Spectator.

O’Doherty argues that the white cube space arranged by such meticulous principles is no longer just a neutral context. According to Pinheiro, “although designed to be invisible, it was hard to ignore the possibilities of the gallery space” (58). The neutrality of the sacral white space is actually an illusion, it represents the ruling classes of society, and its development “is one of modernism’s triumphs-a development commercial, esthetic, and technological” (O’Doherty 79). In a classic modernist gallery, as in the church, it is not allowed to speak in full voice, laugh, eat, drink, lie down, or sleep. The white cube, with its standards, supports the traditional prejudices of the capitalist society’s elite and absorbs the artworks, becoming the content itself rather than the context.

It should be noted that O’Doherty considered two possible forms of art existence – modernist and post-modernist. Modernist art is more inclined to classical forms, depersonalization of a human, and separation from real life. The gallery space of the white cube exists just according to these principles, does not interact with a person, and sacralizes art and the objects, separating them from the “worldly” life. The works of art and the figure of the artist acquire a halo of spirituality, extravagance, and inaccessibility.

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According to O’Doherty, “with postmodernism, the gallery space is no longer ‘neutral’,” and “the walls assimilate; the art discharges” (79). Thus, new forms of art that appeared in the middle of the 20th century establish contact with living people and their urgent concerns. In this sense, the author criticized the white cube for its lifelessness and timelessness, which, to some extent, destroy the very meaning of art.

In support of his position, O’Doherty indicates actions and gestures designed to correlate the internal content of the modernist gallery not with the context of the white cube, but with the real context of social life. These are, for instance, the actions of Daniel Buren, who blocked the entrance of Milan Apollinaire Gallery (1968) and Christo Javacheff, who packed the entire Chicago Museum of Modern Art in a tarpaulin (1969). As a reaction to the emptiness of the white cube and bourgeois consumption of art, artists created out-of-museum, living art by pushing aesthetic objects into a social and political context.

Several researchers discuss the significant objectives of museum and gallery spaces in modern society, noting their democratic functions of reflecting on social issues and ensuring access to cultural heritage. According to Arantes, “the museum should be thought of as a device or mechanism, not as a space closed in on itself” (467). The white cube completely renounces any social functions and constitutes a separate cultural phenomenon with its own value.

According to Tarasi, “O’Doherty’s logic is that the destination of a gallery invests its own physical space with the legitimating power of the understandings and discourses present in the modern evolution of art” (58). Thus, when this space comes into contact with the real world, interacts with the visitor, and corresponds to the modernity, it becomes enriched and more meaningful and attractive, both in terms of art and commerce.

There is a suggestion that O’Doherty’s theory is rather a mystification and does not correspond to the actual development paradigm of museums and galleries of contemporary art. Klonk states that experiments with white walls and neutral space occurred back in the early 20th century, and that classic white cubes are still being created nowadays, for example in the Frankfurt’s Stadel Museum (67). However, it is more a matter of formal changes than rethinking the purpose of museum and gallery spaces.

O’Doherty’s claim consisted of designating the perceived purpose of the galleries and the museums that were only reflected in the white cube space. According to his view, art had been losing its implicit function, and therefore its value and meaning. This vision was shared by many contemporaries and expressed in the actions mentioned above, as well as the ideas of specific authors and researchers.

Currently, museum and gallery administrators are increasingly taking into account the participatory culture, the principle of interactivity, and the social and political agenda. According to Arantes, the museum should be understood as an environment that ultimately calls for real action in life (467). In many respects, O’Doherty’s insights contributed to the contemporary changes in the perception of the purpose of gallery spaces and their present state.

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Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube was one of the first reflections on gallery space and the role of the artwork and visitor in it. The metaphor of the white cube reflects timelessness and detachment from the life of the intra-gallery space, which has turned from context into the content. O’Doherty’s ideas were shared by numerous artists of his time and led to a rethinking of the role of art in society.

Works Cited

Arantes, Priscila. “Contemporary Art, the Archive and Curatorship: Possible Dialogues.” Curator: The Museum Journal, vol. 61, no. 3, 2018, pp. 449-468.

Klonk, Charlotte. “Myth and reality of the White Cube.” From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum, edited by Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius and Piotr Piotrowski. Routledge, 2016, pp. 67-80.

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. The Lapis Press, 1986.

Pinheiro, Teresa Sousa Veloso da Costa. The Exhibition as Knowledge Production. Dissertation, Catholic University of Portugal, 2017. CUP, 2018.

Tarasi, Mihai M. “A Contemporary Artistic Lection of Architectural Space.” Hermeneia, vol. 22, 2019, pp. 53-63.

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