Exercise 5.1: Origins of the White Cube

The essay starts with the statement that in this century we “investigate things in relation to their context, come to see the context as formative of the thing, and, finally, see the context as as thing itself”.

It goes on to describe the modern gallery space which, it says is constructed to rules that are as strict as those for building a medieval church. The windows are sealed off, walls are painted white and the ceiling becomes the source of life.

The gallery is described as a chamber whose roots are found ‘not so much in art history as history of religion’.

This religious theme continues throughout the essay where the gallery becomes a place of ritual.

But it is not for the sake of religion that the gallery is constructed in this way, according to the author “the endurance of a certain power structure is the end for which the sympathetic magic of the white cube is devised”.

The White Cube offers access to a spiritual world at the cost of the visitor becoming ‘the eye’ and ‘the spectator’. The eye refers solely to the visual world in the gallery, the spectator means leaving everything from the real world outside, almost a cardboard cut out of the visitor.

The essays are a defence of the real world against the sterility of the White Cube.


It is interesting to consider the very strident points made in the essay. I think that most would agree that context influences how we view an object and this is particularly so in an artistic or gallery setting.

The White Cube is a recent phenomenon, if you visit the National Gallery or see pictures of older galleries then they are not in any way similar to contemporary galleries. In previous centuries the walls of galleries were covered with works of art , up to, and including the ceiling. It is a recent phenomenon for the white painted walls and lack of windows.

In some ways this can strike as giving space to the object on display, there are no distractions and the work of art can be observed in isolation almost. O’Doherty seems to be arguing that the rituals for visiting such a gallery have overtaken the simple appreciation of the display and have become the reason for the visit.