Arts Sector Etiquette: The Private View
If you're lucky enough to be invited, and given access to the free booze, you should be aware of the dress code and the unusual art of Working the Room
The arts: what a big, scary, cultural behemoth they are. For vast swathes of the population, the arts are more terrifying than Ebola, meth addiction or a return to the Gold Standard. They – whoever 'they' are – have slapped a 'Here Be Dragons' sticker on anything with a whiff of greasepaint or white spirit.
Fear not. Let us take you by the hand and guide you gently through this minefield of potential social embarrassment and awkward, exciting ideas. Let’s start with the etiquette of the 'private view'.
The private view is the opening night, or the press night, of an art exhibition, an exclusive entry point into this wonderful and exciting world. For anyone lucky enough to find themselves on the list, there is an etiquette that you would be smart to follow, and various other things to be aware of.
Dressing For Success
The arts community is an inclusive one – everybody is welcome – and so there is no real dress code. My own look, which I call Rhinestone Librarian, has served me faithfully for the best part of a decade, and only occasionally inspires people to laugh openly in my face.
The whole gamut of sartorial styles can be employed when attending a private view, from outright peacockery to febrile tramp and all points in between. Office suits, however, are not generally encouraged, unless you have the whiff of funding about you or you look as if you’ve slept in it. How does an artist press their suit? On a park bench and under the stars. You might like to accessorise with a dollop of baked-on burrito to accent the lapel.
Hard-wearing utility fabrics are favoured, so expect to see Dr Martens and vintage leather on either sex. Beards continue to be popular for men, while huge coiling scarves and gong-like earrings adorn many of the women. When the artist has attained éminence grise status, waistcoats and walking sticks may be affected, while the older, still fabulous Bohemian woman can adopt a pashmina, chunky amber jewellery and a cloud of Opium that’s like a firewall.
For many the focus of the private view is the complementary booze. Free beer and wine is a necessary evil for the artist who is, more often than not, earnestly displaying his or her wares with little chance of recouping their losses. Free wine is the petal on the rose, the stilton in the mouse-trap.
An artist wants, needs, to get their work seen. That is their raison d’etre – their art does not exist in a vacuum, the piece is not finished until it has been seen. Its public completes the circuit. So they bite the bullet, dig deep and head to the Cash and Carry.
Be nice, gentle reader. Look at the poor artist there, anxious, desperate to put a red spot next to a piece of work. Don’t drink them out of house and home – four or five glasses is plenty. Besides, you have to keep your wits about you for the next step...
Working The Room
The arts community is a scattered one, with little pockets of Bohemia strewn all over the country like weeds pushing through cracks in the pavement. So the private view (a misnomer, like 'public school', in that is not open to everyone) is a gathering of the tribes, a pow-wow; a potlatch. Expect bellowing, guffaws, kissed air, back slapping and firm handshakes: all of this is normal. Don’t expect anybody to remember your name two minutes after meeting you, as they’re all busy people.
You may well experience a phenomenon I call 'Scenester’s Drift', whereby the person you are talking to will suddenly allow their eye-line to shift a foot to the left. Don’t worry – they are not about to faint and they haven’t just noticed an aggressive build up of dandruff. It merely means that someone more important than you has just entered the room and that your conversation is about to be abruptly terminated.
This is the biggy: the angry dog biting your cultural leg, Cerberus barking his head off while you’re stroking your chin and attempting some appreciation. But art isn’t scary. It’s too large, too diffuse and too profligate. It’s a nebulous cloud full of funny, colourful, interesting stuff.
There are two secrets to art. The first is to meet it half way. Engage with it, try to understand what it’s doing on its own terms. Personalise it. Imprint it with your own ideas. That’s sort of what it’s there for.
Secondly, you don’t have to like it. You’re not obliged. You can even think it's rubbish. That’s fine, as long as you’ve given it a fair shake of the stick. Who can ask for more than that?
So there you have it – dressed like Stewart Lee’s stunt double, drunk out of your mind and refusing to make eye contact with the person you’re talking to while glad handing the rest of the room. You are now ready for the arts. See you down the front.