Another day, another four invitations to “Private Views” in my Inbox, and I wonder yet again why this archaic term is still being used in the second decade of the twenty-first century?
However contemporary the artist or questioning the work on show, the opening party of an exhibition is still frequently advertised as a Private View. It’s a desperately old-fashioned term riddled with connotations of elitism, privilege, wealth, exclusion and clubbability.
The origins go back 100 years and more, when art was almost entirely for the titled and wealthy elite, and patronage was part of the lifestyle of the rich and a necessity for the artist. The wealthy would be invited to a private view of the artworks before the exhibition opened to the public. The objectives were to allow them to see the work without the company of the unwashed middle classes, and to promote the exclusive opportunity to buy the most desirable works before they went to the open market.
Both these notions still thrive today in the commercial art market – substitute “rich, famous or influential” for “aristocratic” – but, in my opinion, has limited place within our publicly funded contemporary art world. And the term seems particularly inappropriate for use by those artists who consider themselves to be questioning accepted mores, working at the leading edge of art, or concerned with accessibility.
So why do artists, curators and institutions continue to use this phrase?
I suspect it's because the tradition, its origins and baggage have not been examined, and then thought through in relation to individual practice and career. But I also suspect there remains a psychological need for distinction, and an emotional need to associate with and belong to the ‘elite of successful artists’. Consequently it remains one of the few blind spots for aspiring, early career and emerging artists and curators.
So, here’s a challenge: if you do still use the term Private View, can you justify it critically and intellectually? And is there a better alternative?