The Review of the Context as Content by Brian O’Doherty


A series of well-known essays by a renowned Irish writer Brian O’Doherty under the name of Inside the White Cube gives his thoughts on the art space, mainly focusing on the work of modern galleries. The design of the White Cube galleries has affected and permeated art and exhibition practice around the globe since the 1930s. O’Doherty looks into the gallery space and describes the influence that the gallery design has on artists. He was the first author to point out the fact that after the war art in America and Europe underwent a period of a huge crisis. This particular issue was related to changes in the work of museums and art galleries.

O’Doherty explores the connection between aesthetics, economic situation, and social context. Then he argues about the influence of artistic space on artists’ strategies. The book includes three main essays: Notes on Gallery Space, the Eye, and the Spectator, and Context as Content. This paper will elaborate on the author’s opinions in his third essay the Context as Content by summarizing it and giving some arguments for support of his views.

Summary of the Context as Content

In Context as Content, the author begins this chapter with a metaphor of door knocks; each type of knocking represents various artistic movements. He also mentions that Duchamp was one of the first artists to modify the gallery room with his art. After this, the author eventually reaches the starting point of the chapter: how context becomes content. According to his first point, “as modernism gets older, context becomes content” (O’Dohety, 15).

In this chapter, Brian O’Doherty gives answers to several questions. For example, what does the context of the gallery space mean for the art object? What does it do to the subject of view? And, finally, how do the frameworks eventually prevail over the art objects and become content themselves? He examines well-known installations 1,200 Coal Bags and Mile of String by a French-American artist Marcel Duchamp.

Moreover, the artist reflects on the significance of the gallery space, and not just the objects in it, turning the gallery upside down. For example, he discusses how the ceiling of the gallery room has lost its significance. If during Renaissance the ceiling contained painted figures, or the ceilings of Rococo galleries were embroidered, modernism simply ignores the ceiling. It does not have the same importance anymore, being taken by electric lights. O’Doherty remembers Duchamp again, recalling how he turned the exhibition upside down, where the ceiling was breaking, and the floor was the ceiling.

Furthermore, the author argues about the connection between context and content of the gallery. His main concern is, what can the plain white wall replace out of the art object’s removed content? According to O’Doherty, “context provides a large part of late modern and postmodern art’s content. This is seventies art’s main issue, as well as its strength and weakness” (O’Doherty, 79). Moreover, he analyzes the correlation between the white cube space of a gallery, the space that surrounds the art object, and what impact does the combination of these elements has on the spectator. The main point that O’Doherty presents is that context becomes content when the arrangement of artworks in exhibitions is made with the consideration of how it would influence the spectator.

Arguments for O’Doherity View

Traditionally, spectators see artworks as objects that are independent of the surrounding context and usually stand on their own. Nevertheless, since the creation of modern conceptual art in the 20th century, art does not have any particular characteristics that define it as such. Therefore, the content of the art cannot be identified without reference to its context. However, it is yet not obvious how context influences the impression, understanding, and appreciation of art by viewers.

Brian O’Doherty supports his described above statement with an argument about a new way of looking at art and art galleries. As an example, he presents Courbet’s Salon des Refusees of 1855 (O’Doherty 24). He states that this exhibition is the first one of the kind, which encouraged the artist to create the context of their work. It is to say the artist had to set about displaying his work in such a way that the placing and hanging of the pictures influenced the meaning of what the artist was attempting to say with his art. This was highly significant as it highlighted the importance of how an artwork is displayed affects the way in which it’s viewed. For example, displaying the Mona Lisa on the floor would give the painting a different meaning than placing it, in its own special room.

In further 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.

His point of view was thoroughly studied and supported by other researchers. For example, in an investigation by Gartus et al., the researchers examined eye movements while participants of the study observed and expressed their opinions on the aesthetics, interest, emotional value, and style of works of modern art and graffiti illustrations. The artworks were located in either museums or in the street, thus, giving different contexts to the art. The study group consisted of 64 psychology undergraduates, 48% of them being women. The conclusion that as drawn from this study is as follows: “context can have an important influence on aesthetic appreciation” (Gartus et al. 64). Nevertheless, the impression of the art depends not only on the context of it but also on its style and the personal art interests of the spectators.

Moreover, several studies on the same subject were conducted by Brieber et al. According to the results, “no effects of physical context and genuineness on art appreciation were found” (Brieber et al. 103). However, the outcome of another research suggests that “the possibility of the methods and settings that are commonly used in the field of psychology of art and aesthetics contribute to divorce the experience of art from its context, under the flawed assumption that it is purely a response to the formal and semantic content” (Brieber et al. 41). It is safe to say that with the emergence of postmodernism, the gallery space could no longer be plain and neutral. The walls of a white cube gallery become a canvas on which the ideas, values, and aesthetics of artworks are shared with the viewers.


All in all, it would appear that modern art context plays a large role in exploring art’s content. The gallery space in the form of a white cube is a place free of context, where time and social space are thought to be excluded from the experience of artworks. Nevertheless, the metaphor of the white cube represents emptiness and separation from the life of the gallery space, which has turned from context into the content.

Works Cited

Gartus, Andreas, Nicolas Klemer, and Helmut Leder. The effects of visual context and individual differences on perception and evaluation of modern art and graffiti art. Acta psychological, vol. 156., 2015. pp. 64-76.

Brieber, David, Helmut Leder, and Marcos Nadal. The experience of art in museums: An attempt to dissociate the role of physical context and genuineness. Empirical Studies of the Arts, vol. 33, no.1, 2015. pp. 95-105.

Brieber, David, Marcos Nadal, and Helmut Leder. In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art. Acta psychological, vol. 154, 2015. pp. 36-42.

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space. University of California Press, 1999.