Tapping into the same furious vein that brought you road rage and air rage is the new middle class ire of choice: art rage. Going round a gallery or museum – supposedly a calming and intellectual experience – is turning into twelve rounds with a bruiser from a leafy suburb.
Greig Angove, a graphic designer from London, witnessed a near punch-up at the high temple of art-as-relaxation, Tate Modern, on a busy Saturday afternoon. “People were pushing and shoving. There was a German tourist and a Southwark homeboy who nudged each other; they had a face-off and the homeboy said he was going to batter him, but the German stood his ground.” Given the Tate’s five million annual visitors, it’s surprising there isn’t a St John ambulance on permanent stand-by.
The Guardian’s own Jonathan Jones thinks it’s only a matter of time before blood is spilled: “It can be so annoying to visit art galleries that I’m surprised there are not more incidents of violence. Personally, if I didn’t have the outlet of writing about the some of the stuff that goes on, I might be getting into fights regularly.
“A couple of years ago, I watched a teacher look on complacently while a school group on a visit to the Hayward Gallery fooled around with, and sniggered at, an artwork that portrayed Jews being forced to wash the streets of Vienna in 1938. They obviously thought it was just a nutty conceptual art piece, a bit of fun. Their teacher couldn’t give a toss. I wanted to hit him.”
My first taste of the sharp end of art rage came at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Da Vinci exhibition in 2006. I was admiring some of the extraordinary drawings of hearts and horses when a middle-aged gentleman and his well-coiffed wife took offence at how long I was spending at the cabinet. Instead of a genteel excuse-me, a genteel jab in the ribs and some muttered remarks about my parentage sufficed. The wife stalked across the room with a nasty smile.
It’s not just the museum end either. At the private view for FAILE – an international collective of artists who had done paintings on wooden crates – at Soho’s Lazarides Gallery last March, patrons were grappling over the crates, trying to yank them out of rivals’ hands like wild dogs who had got their teeth into the same juicy steak. My shame-faced source was one of these desperate grapplers.
Major galleries and museums were not forthcoming about incidents within their own precincts, presumably unwilling to create the image of pensioners slapping each other silly in front of the Elgin Marbles or ASBOs banning accountants from going within a mile of a Mark Rothko. Nonetheless, an undercurrent of tension is clearly perceptible among the harried visitors stuck on the conveyor belt of the modern gallery. It seems that today, even a Turner seascape is an incitement to violence.