Dear Director of the Victoria and Albert:
I have been then looking forward to Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A is one of the most avant-garde places in the intersection of pop, culture and high art: weaving into materiality, artefacts, history, music, fashion and culture, their shows are unrivalled across the world. Take for example their great exhibition about David Bowie and the ramifications not only of his music for generations to come and its influence in sexual and gender revolutions; or the recent homage paid to designer Alexander MacQueen, where fashion meets art, futurism, sculpture and eco-feminism. So, I was really enthused with the idea of spending time over the intimate garments across history, and I was ready to enter when I saw a sign at the entrance of the exhibition: “No photography and No sketching allowed”. I was taken aback! I sort of understand why not photography (albeit the popularity of smart phones as way of consuming/engaging with art cannot be denied), but sketching? It is being invited to a music party but not being allowed to dance!
Drawing for me is an essential way of engaging creatively with what I am seeing, and those who follow this blog surely know that I cannot speak/communicate without drawings. Indeed, just recently I wrote something about drawing as a way of knowing, in the sense of enhancing cognitive processes, with potential links with teaching and learning. In my teaching I use drawing as a cognitive tool in different subjects such as sustainability, environmental management and ethics, but also as part of the tools for students in creative problem solving. Moreover, I think drawing are part of the purpose of Living Beautifully, in the sense of what John Berger describes about drawings as “maps of love”. On the other hand, it is true that I am a compulsive drawer, and I cannot think of going to an exhibition without my pen&pad, making notes, engaging with what I am seeing in a creative and transformative way. It is not only the eye that dances across an exhibition room, but the role of the hand in the sketching connects with the heart and memory. David Hockney likes to quote a Chinese wisdom about the intimate relationship between hand, eye and heart, and he says that the three elements are the birth cradle of any artistic endeavour, specially on painting.
But let’s examine why sketching or its banning seems to contradict the principles of contemporary museums. Firstly, sketching allows a creative engagement with the artefact or the work exhibited. It allows a better “look” on the object and a spiritual communion with it. John Berger has praised the power of drawing in engaging the senses, for him the blank page of a sketch-book become a microcosms to be filled with the potentiality of every proportion you have ever perceived or sensed. Indeed, in his view, drawing is not “transcribing”, but the model is a reminder of experiences you can only formulate and remember by drawing. He encourages drawings as a way of seeing and being in the world, making sense of the visible, through an ethic/aesthetic engagement. Hence, without this freedom to engage with the work of art, what the museum may be promoting is simply a banal consumerism: buy the ticket, queue, watch (briefly), move, perambulate, leave and buy the catalogue or any of the paraphernalia nicely exhibited in the shop. (I am big fan of the shops, do not get me wrong, but for me the purchase of the catalogue or any or the objects associated to the exhibition is a way of continuing the pleasure of engaging with the event!).
Secondly, it is ironic that I have realised that drawing is not permitted in this “undressed” exhibition. As the lady in the front desk kindly clarified, this has been a ban that has been in place for as long as the four years she has worked in the museum. It is not something new, and clearly, what I have done before is “illegal”: an unintended ‘guerrilla drawing’. But the irony lies on the fact that drawing can be seen the “underwear” of any work of art. Anthony Gormley, the great British sculpture draws every day, he says that “drawing is the zone of freedom, fertile ground, out of which all my work comes.” Similarly, the artist Grayson Perry, whose latest “Sketchbooks” were proudly showcased in the V&A bookshop, speaks about the richness of sketching and drawing, the priceless joy of drawing, and the creative echoes/outcomes of such drawings in subsequent works of art. Not to mention the tradition of sketching in galleries and museums across the world and throughout history, where the great painters have learned by copying from the great masters… is this not the aim of a publicly funded museum? The V&A may say that this is a requirement of the owners, specially in this type of non-permanent exhibitions, and that may be a case of legal copyrights, or personal conditions. But what matters here is that if this is the case this should not be funded publicly, or at least there should be some leverage in the negotiations with lenders and owners, who I am sure, open their collections as a philanthropic and generous gesture.
Thirdly, the own history of the Victoria&Albert Museum represents a journey in which craft comes to be recognised as art, and where materiality and cultural expressions can be understood in a wider context of “making” and “marking”. Similarly, one may say that drawing -as making marks in a paper- have long undervalued as the “underwear” of the outer garment of art. Also, the possibility of engaging with creative people or any type of “customers” or “art consumers”, need to take into account the variety of ways of people engaging with the materials and objects exhibited. Thus, why to ban drawing or even photography (provided that flash is not used) when these are valid ways to engage and to “appropriate” what one is seeing? The banning on drawing / sketching in exhibitions attempts against the joy of visiting the exhibition, offering another example of the disciplining structures of museums, in which there are certain rules, normally imposing certain physical exertions on the body (i.e. the absence of chairs or benches) and the perception of the museum as a place of social exclusion. In business terms, it is possible to say that this banning ignores the variety of the art-consuming experience, with potential damages in the number of people visiting or the impact on social media. Is this what the V&A is about? I had the impression this museum was, on the contrary, a bridge between high and low culture, a link between pop and art, a way of connecting the domestic, the street with the intellectual but also with the activist, the artist, the creator, the entrepreneur.
Finally, drawing is a source of joy and contemplation. When you are drawing you are in your own bubble, where nothing matters but your direct relationship between the object and your drawing, it is a communion, a way of possessing but also being possessed by the object/subject of your drawing, it is pure mindfulness, it is meditation, it is creation, it is spiritual and physical at the same time. Andrew Marr, in his exquisite “Short book about Drawing” summarises this nicely: “Drawing will make you a better person… [because] it makes you think…. It becomes an education which changes your brain as much as learning to play the piano or to dance. it is about striving to become fully human.”
If the ultimate goal of the museum is to enhance the possibility of a beautiful life, drawing undressed or any other exhibition should not be banned, but instead encouraged, enabled and celebrated.