Much of the time we view art, it is upon a plinth or in a frame. If this isn’t the case, works are usually artfully (forgive the pun) positioned in a gallery whose blank white walls function much like a frame, telling us where to look and what to look at. Trafalgar Square’s even got four of them.
Yet what is the point of a plinth or a frame, if not just to act as a directional signal? What is the point of all that big white space which surrounds massive Ron Mueck sculptures, or those four sides of ornately carved and richly gilded oak wood?
The theory of framing has a fascinating, multi-dimensional past. Looking back and across through cultures and historical eras, we can see that we human beings don’t only frame art in the painted picture or carved rock sense. We “frame” theatre with a stage and a proscenium (the arch above the stage), and we might almost get away with saying that we frame food when serving it thoughtfully on a beautiful, round floral Limoges porcelain plate. Epic poems and scriptures are surrounded by illustrated manuscripts, and what is a model if not a prettily trimmed support for a costly, well-cut couture garment?
Let’s take a moment to imagine what all these things would be like without their frames.
Food without a plate becomes a not-so-tempting pile of slop. That poem without its illustrations could be an ungraspable and mentally overwhelming Homeric saga. Players without a stage run the risk of looking like crazy people, inseparable from “real life.” That intense person locking eyes with you strangely on the tube while muttering Shakespearean insults could be immersive theatre, playacting, or it could be a real threat. That evening gown without its willowy teenage model is but a heap of satin as ostrich feathers on the floor.
And art? Art without its frame…
It seems with art, perhaps even more so than with plays and musicals and fashion shows that we rely on the frame for the object of our focus to remain tantalising and appetising. The right framing even adds layers of significance to a work. In fact, a frame might be the difference between seeing something as a sumptuous amuse bouche, and seeing the same morsel as the dingy scraps of someone else’s meal.
It really is like a full English breakfast. You know that bit of tomato, on your plate but moments ago, which has now been chucked into the rubbish bin and physically repulses you? You seemed pretty keen on munching it only minutes before.
Like a good fry up and its refuse, the difference between framed and unframed qualities might be a very important difference between art and not-art. Between mistaking the promising but unfinished sketch of a bluechip artist with an amateur’s insipid attempts at brushwork.
The frame seems so necessary, it adds polish and identity and ensures the right message is being broadcasted by the creative thing it confines. As the very space within which we view the object, the frame or pedestal, or lack thereof, is inherently part of visually experiencing a thickly-varnished oil portrait or a bronze nude.
The centrality of framing, or plinth-ing, if you prefer, can make some people feel uneasy, like it’s something more of a sick dependency. Decontextualising a piece of art is often used by critics as a means to assert its fallibility.
However, we’re much less likely to approach the baseless and unknown. Frames and pedestals in fact allow us to both see and accept art, especially forms of art that might be deeply controversial or unsettling. For many of us, the platter on which we are handed objects and ideas is inseparable from our enjoyment of and comfort with those objects and ideas.