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I need to to preface the following with an acknowledgement:
Nobody gets anxious walking into a petrol station. The presence of highly combustible liquid death? Check. Half a tank costing more than a full tank used to? Check. Imitation scotch eggs, heady with the scent of disappointment and middle age bowel cancer? Check.
While nobody bats an eyelid at any of that, everybody, to some degree, gets anxious about walking into an art gallery, to the point where most people would rather not.
This isn’t an accident. Commercial galleries know how they’re perceived, and lean into it, buying cachet and exclusivity for their wealthy 1% by excluding everyone else.
We, in turn, buy into their toxic nonsense (they’re the experts... right?), internalising their snobbery and treating a £500 painting with far more reverence than we’d afford a £500 PlayStation or sofa.
And that—in much the same way George Lucas decided that noted filicide-enthusiast Darth Vader needed a trilogy-long admission of guilt before bringing him to the meat and potatoes of trying to shank Luke with a hot one—brings our preamble of culpability to today’s topic:
People LOSE THEIR MINDS over where to hang their pictures…
...then give up, wracked with anxiety, because it’s easier not to have anything at all.
The good news, fortunately, is two-fold:
Firstly, it isn’t their fault. The art world did this to them and is entirely responsible for their hanging dilemma.
Secondly, that we can do something about it—and absolutely will.
But first (butt first, lol), let’s circle back to the central madness of it all, and see if we can understand it some more.
Claude is a cunt, villain and propagator-in-chief of acute anxiety.
In Rosemary Wells' classic Timothy Goes to School, Timothy’s life is made a living hell by doyen of the school playground set (and all around shit-muncher) Claude.
Claude (surname unknown—his parents probably won him in a raffle) invents all sorts of ridiculous sartorial rules that Timothy (also no surname, but in a cool way) is too naive to realise are a crock of old shit, designed by Claude to obfuscate his own insecure small-dick energy.
No sunsuit on your first day of school, no party clothes on your second.
Timothy is devastated because he thinks he doesn’t fit in, and it’s all Claude’s fault. Fuck you, Claude; leave Britney Timothy alone.
The moral is that when insecure people try to make you feel small, it really isn’t your problem: it’s theirs.
You’d think that’d be the end of it, but what jest—allow me to introduce you to the art world, a place where insecurity is so ingrained in the galleries and dealers of its upper echelons that insecurity has become the art world itself.
You think most dealers don’t know that deep in the mind-safe of their subconscious is a spinning top, reminding them they don’t have the first clue what they’re doing?
And so they double down. They make the public feel unwelcome and instead of taking moving, life-changing works of art home to enjoy, we bring gallerists' insecurities home with us instead, absorbing them in our psyches and making them our own.
The net effect is that when it comes to hanging paintings, we’d be better off jettisoning the term “artwork” entirely, for all the Claude-induced anxiety spasms they come loaded with.
Try it yourself.
If I asked you how many dogs you could fit on each of your walls, it’d be an enormous, glossy-coated number.
Imagine it. Rooms full of great big furry walls, panting, thrilled to be there and wagging away like brilliant, shaggy idiots.
Now, instead of dogs—same shape, same size, but let’s call them paintings instead.
The arse begins to pucker.
It’s bizarre isn’t it? If we called them windows, you’d want as many of them as you could get, as big as they come, and you’d know exactly where to put them.
And yet we’re all far more cautious where we put pictures than we’d ever be with dogs, or windows, or anything else that doesn’t come with a loaded gun strapped to its back.
I’ve butted up against this disconnect more times that I care to remember.
A typical exchange might (and very often did) look like this:
You need a big wall for these pictures don’t you?
Not really—that’s a standard-size wall, and most of my customers live in fairly normal flats or houses.
Ok, but you still need the right kind of room.
What does that even mean? I’ve seen just about every shape, size and type of room you can imagine at this point, and I can't imagine what “the right kind of room” would look like.
I mean you’d need to stand back a long way to take everything in.
And yet the first thing you did was walk closer to get a better look….
Well your customers probably don’t care where they put their pictures; I bet they’ve got loads of money.
That definitely feels like a non sequitur, but not especially. I’ve sold pictures to everyone from gas fitters to teachers to florists to… everybody. And most of them move their pictures around, so they really do care—enough to actively participate and engage in owning and enjoying their pictures.
Well, we only rent, so we can’t put pictures up anyway.
Why can’t you? Dab the hole with some Polyfilla when you’re finished—you’ll have made the wall stronger and your landlord will thank you for it.
Haha, you’re funny. Maybe when we win the lottery.
When people start talking about the right kind of house or the right kind of wall or the right kind of room…. it kinda sounds like someone we’ve already met, doesn’t it?
The mistake I made for the longest time was taking any of these points at face value, and not as manifestations of deeper, internalised insecurities about not being “posh” enough.
I truly believed they could be rationalised, but the truth is you can’t fight feelings with facts. When people can find a problem for your every solution, there’s something more than nerves going on.
So what can we do, practically, to make owning, handling and hanging paintings easier and more comfortable?
Frustratingly, one of the best cures is buying lots of paintings.
I’m not going to labour this one too much, because I hate the whole just do it ethos. “Just” is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting in that context. Scared of heights? Just jump out of a plane. Not sure where to hang a picture? Just buy a load; you’ll figure it out.
The salient detail is that the first step is the most difficult you’ll ever make, rivalled only by the second. The weight of “where will this picture even go?” hangs heavy, especially with your inner Claude silently judging you.
So how do we give old Claude the heave-ho and banish our anxieties about having to identify exactly the right spot on exactly the right wall in exactly the right home?
The very best advice I can possibly give you is to handle as much art as you can.
We’re too used to seeing paintings up on walls, hung out of reach, behind barriers and with gallery assistants in white gloves ready to make sure we don’t touch the art. As explained somewhere in the up-above, it’s made us lose our damn minds.
Pick paintings up. Demystify them. Get used to moving them around. Break this hold of them being reverential, monolithic, untouchable items by handing them in your home, in galleries, at exhibitions, artists' studios. Take hold of them, touch them—they should feel deferential to YOU, not the other way around.
Meet this guy.
The balls on this kid.
I have no idea if he brought that picture with him or lifted it off the walls, but that’s a VERY real gallery and an even more real member of staff he did that in front of.
So, presuming you’re not about to march into the National Gallery and wrench a van Eyck off the wall, what does that look like, practically, in your home?
If you’ve already got pictures, artwork, photographs, anything—fantastic. Your first step should be to take them all down. Everything. The whole lot. Make a big pile of them in your front room—remind yourself what your home looks like without anything nice on the walls.
And then have some fun. Open a bottle of wine, put some music on. Get the family involved, or invite some friends over if you can. Get used to trying pictures in different spots and different rooms and just get comfortable with the idea that it’s your painting and you can put it wherever you like for as long (or as little) as you like.
The aim is to move pictures around, try them in different rooms, discover spots for them you’ve not previously considered, and demystify them, stripping people like Claude of their power to tell you what you can and can’t do.
That said, what if you don’t have anything at all?
Head to a gallery, and ask them if you can hold one of their paintings. Be honest: explain to them that you’ve never picked up up a picture in your life, that you’re intrigued by it and you’d like to put something in your hands just to see what it feels like. If you need someone to blame, tell them Alexander Miles sent you.
If they give you a funny look—brilliant! You’ve absolutely discovered a gallery than can go and fuck itself forever more. Walk away knowing you’ll have the last laugh in years to come when they close up forever.
(Obviously, this is within reason—some pictures are hundreds of years old and, much like your nan, can’t just be picked up willy nilly.)
What you really want, though, is a gallery or studio or show or artist that embraces your enthusiasm, and is more than happy to put something in your hands so you can have a proper look and a feel. "You look with your eyes and not with your hands" is proper, proper bollocks—it’s human instinct to want to reach out and interact with the world, so in theory, they should be over the moon that you want to get involved.
(Again, the caveat is that they might try and sell you something—again, be honest and explain you’re not even sure if you’re comfortable holding artwork yet, let alone owning it—in theory, they should recognise you’re on a path and respect that.)
Ultimately, the goal is to get to a point where enjoying something on your wall isn’t killed in the crib by your inner Claude over where it’s going to go.
Because, quite genuinely, the only real rules are that there ARE no rules. You can hang whatever you like wherever you like as long as you're enjoying it (and it isn’t hurting anybody).
(And bearing in mind that art is something you take with you—it’s going to hang in a home one day that you’ve not even been in yet. Good art looks great everywhere because it has to.)
“Where will it go?” is an anxiety, and an anxiety that can be cast off and overcome, but only when when you remember you’re the one in charge, and not some judgemental prick in a suit who has their own problems—they don’t need to be yours, too.
Compared to the damp, plague-infested churches of yore, your home is the Rolls Royce of environments when it comes to hanging art. If the half-finished Mona Lisa can survive a trip across the Alps on a donkey (true story), then a two-bed semi-detached in Cleethorpes is going to be just fine.
However, while we’re here (and in in case you were hoping for some neat bullet points, rather than a 1900-word treatise on the nature of internalised anxiety), let’s kill some common worries:
A light dust with a cloth or duster every so often and you’ll be peachy. Other than that, there’s not a lot you have to do to keep them looking fabulous. You don’t need to use any cleaning product (and more often than not, we’d advise you don’t).
Caveats: if it’s a kitchen and grease is gonna build up, maybe consider putting glass over the top so you can wipe it down every couple of months. Kids maybe warrant glass too, or you could just teach them to chill out around pictures and not add their own flourishes to the artwork. Same if you're a heavy cigar smoker, but then if you’ve got your own cigar room, you probably already know that.
Some of the most incredible art ever produced has spent thousands of years in some of the very hottest countries on the planet.
If you’re in some sort of extreme situation inside an active volcano, we might need to talk about this some more. But as a general rule, unless you're a soon-to-spontaniously-combust Dickensian rag-and-bottle merchant, if you’re ok, your art’s ok, and a 36-degree June in Holborn is going to inconvenience your ice cube tray far more than your artwork.
Honestly, no. Same goes for fireplaces. If you can stand comfortably close to your heat source, your picture can too. Although we'll pay good money for evidence of your radiators coming to life.
We use UV-resistant varnish on every single on of our pictures, so, again, unless you’re going to go to some ridiculous extreme and tie it to a stake in the middle of the Arizona desert and then examine the effects in 40 years' time, no window or light source in your home is going to present you with an issue. (And even in our extreme version, you’re probably going to register more damage from vultures than sunlight, so...)
Hand on heart, I can’t definitively say whether other galleries and artists do the same. Bear in mind, though, there are paintings in the National Gallery that are over 600 years old, so again, generally speaking, it’s not a concern. If you’re worried, you can always ask, and if you’re not happy with the answer, I’m sure either the artist or your local framer will be more than happy to slap a coat of UV-resistant varnish on there for you.
I’m yet to encounter a home insurer who won’t cover your artwork. Unless you’re some sort of mega collector with millions of pounds' worth of art, gone are the days of insurers pursing their lips and telling you you’ll need to speak to a specialist. Provide them with a purchase receipt if you can, and the gallery/artist/point of sale should be happy to provide you with a valuation if you require one.
- AM, October 2021