Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Eye of the Beholder

Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Usually this blog is more about analysis than links. But this week, two articles about art, in the NYT and the Washington Post Magazine respectively, called out to be combined into a post about the role of visitors in art interpretation.

The NYT article is about a photography show by artist Thomas Struth at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Manhattan. Struth takes photographs of museum-goers as they gaze, pick their noses, chat on cell phones, and fidget in front of classically great works of art. You can’t see the paintings, only the people watching them, “wary and hopeful.”

Says the reviewer, Michael Kimmelman,

Mr. Struth’s pictures are about this continuum, from artists like Velázquez into the public spaces where their works end up, and to us. What are we looking for in a museum? We go to find truth in pictures, and we end up reading one another’s faces.

We look for ourselves.

Is this a dramatic flair of the pen or a true statement? What do we look for in art museums? I spoke recently to an art museum person who said, “I think there’s an epiphany for everyone in the museum.” Epiphanies are not about objects. They are about our response to objects and experiences. Perhaps projects like Struth’s can help us identify, understand, and deepen those reactions.

The second article is more provocative (and much longer). It is about a Washington Post experiment in which Grammy-winning, internationally acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell set up shop in the L’Enfant Plaza DC metro stop during morning rush hour, an empty violin case in front of him.

His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

The Post set up a hidden camera to watch the action. But the camera was not as kind to Bell as Struth’s photos are to museum art pieces. Over 43 minutes, 1,097 people walked by. Of those, seven stopped for more than a minute to listen. Twenty-seven gave money (totaling $32.47). One person recognized him. After 43 minutes, Joshua Bell, who typically performs in grand concert halls for people who pay upwards of $100 a seat, packed up and unceremoniously left.

The experimenters were surprised. They had expected potential mob scenes, not willful disregard.

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened -- or, more precisely, what didn't happen -- on January 12.

Mark Leithauser wasn’t surprised. Leithauser, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, commented that out of context, some of the Gallery’s greatest treasures wouldn’t garner a second glance.

So what context does art need? An easy answer would be to say that art requires a designed, built home—whether a museum, a concert hall, or a theater—to be “properly” appreciated. But I think that’s limiting, both in terms of location and potential audiences. A better question might be: What kinds of environments support focus, appreciation, and epiphany?

Some guesses (please add your own):

  • Commerce is powerful. What if Joshua Bell had placed some CDs for sale in front of him? If you have something to sell, you are valued by society in a different way.
  • Contrast is distinctive. What if Bell had worn a tux? Would he have been disregarded as a kook or received attention as something unusual? In Providence, the Urban Curators hang fancy picture frames around industrial decay. The contrast between the gilt and the graffiti makes you stop and think about the enclosed image.
  • Find captive audiences. What if Bell had played in a subway car? A subway station is a place you rush through. But buses, cars, and planes are places you are stuck. I love poetry in buses. I don’t have to look at it right away; I can look at it 20 minutes into my commute, look again ten minutes later. It’s not oppressive, and I can find my own time to appreciate it—or not. I don’t have to make a split decision of whether to slow down to look.
  • Make it an event. What if Bell had hung a sign that said, “Violin performance from 8am-8:45 today only”? If you cannot design and sculpt the space in which art lies, you can do so with time. Create a limited place in time for an art experience and people may invite themselves in.
  • Put it where people want it. People go to museums, concerts, and plays to see art of that medium. They expect it, and they hope to be rewarded with good content. But there’s a difference between expectation and desire. I desire art when I feel stressed, ungrounded, troubled—so I’d like to see more art in doctor’s offices, at work, when I’m waiting in line at the DMV. Where/when are the places that you want to receive art?

Part of the issue here is about museums’ perceived ownership of art value. It’s considered denigrating to the art to place it in a context where cannot be appreciated “properly.” Was the Post’s experiment really a failure? It would be interesting to do this same test in a museum. If you wade through Struth’s photos, how often will you see someone having an intense, emotive reaction to art? Seven people out of a thousand? Maybe Bell wasn’t doing as badly as he thought.

1 comments, add yours!:

David K said...

So what context does art need?

Nina, I'd add another bullet to your list... We all seem to need a way to place ourselves into the context.

I know this is a pretty nebulous quality, and it doesn't provide a whole lot of guidance for curators, etc. But in the Washington Post article, several of the folks who stopped to listen either had played violin in their lives or had heard Bell perform before. Several of the others who listened were captive (shoeshine person; Au Bon Pain employee).

I've been thinking lately about the interplay between egoism and context in relation to how we engage our audiences online. It's a general rule of thumb that the first thing any of us do when we get on Google Earth is to search out and zoom in on -- yes, you guessed it-- our homes and offices. Even after that, most people search out places they have been or otherwise know. We want to see the familiar from a different perspective, okay. But it is a HUGE leap for most people to go -- even online -- somewhere for which they have no reference point; no history. In those cases, the visitor does not know what it is they are supposed to see.

So, isn't this the role of education in museums... to tap into the collective social, cultural, and historical reference points which our visitors share to help them make meaning of our collections and exhibitions? What a challenge... making the utterly foreign familiar enough for folks to stop, look and listen!

Would the L'Enfant experiment have turned out differently if there had been signage, brochures, or interpretive programs? Of course it would.