Cathedrals, Factories and Plenty More Where That Came From

by Joanna Chaffin


If you’re reading this blog I bet you like to look at art, and probably read about it too. I can relate to that. As one of the editors of UBC’s Undergraduate Journal of Art History (UJAH), I’m reading about art all the time.

This year I’ve had the chance to work with author Marcus Jack. He wrote an essay called Cathedral/Factory about how the Tate Modern functions as both a cathedral and factory. What struck me as I continued to read his essay is how the entire act of going to a museum or gallery becomes a sort of religious, performative, or sacred experience. From the pilgrimage of sorts that it takes to get there, to the implied codes on how to behave and interact with the works from afar, upholding them as sacred pieces — the ties to religion or a higher spirituality come through without question. Though we may often look to museums and galleries to break the bounds of what is socially acceptable and display what is new and exciting in art, it’s interesting to take a look at how galleries’ and cathedrals’ social cues are similar. From the procession-like movement of visitors to the social codes that are impressed upon the public, the spectacle of art definitely abides by a social code of conduct that reflects centuries of tradition.


Marcus Jack’s paper is about how the Tate Modern in particular functions as a factory as well as sacred space, as the museum building was formerly an abandoned power station. The space was repurposed into a hub of modernity, and in this transformation became an example of a readymade. The building effortlessly juxtaposes the sacred nature of the gallery with the capitalist ideal of production. The movement of visitors, as well as the works on display there, mimics an assembly line.  This context provides a much deeper understanding of works such as Ai Weiewei’s Sunflower Seeds from 2010, which took up the expanse of the Tate’s Turbine Hall with its message of manufactured mass production, and so was made even more powerful.  In thinking about Jack’s paper, I’m struck by how the ceremonious and highly organized act of looking at art comes to such a head in the confines of the Tate Modern and elevates the institution as a “cultural behemoth.”

Marcus Jack’s full paper on the Tate will be published this fall in the 4th issue of UJAH, so keep your eyes peeled! The Undergraduate Journal of Art History at UBC works to publish such papers as examples of exceptional undergraduate student writing and research to contribute to discussions about art and give students a voice in the discourse. The new issue will be published online at all the previous issues of the Journal are also available.


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