Friday, September 28, 2012

Spiritually uplifting, life-changing art

Should art museums try to give their visitors spiritually uplifting, life-changing experiences in front of art?  Imagine an experience -maybe you've even already had one or two like it -where you come into contact with a work of art that, through its profound beauty and/or its deeply human feeling, touches you in a life-changing way. I can remember my most profound one-on-one contact with art, and it still gives me chills to think about it.

It was a couple of years ago. I was visiting Rome by myself -a dream I'd wanted to fulfill ever since becoming obsessed in the third grade with children's books on that ancient toga-clad civilization. So this trip was exciting for me. But it was also a lonely period in my life, a time of confusion about my role in the world, and where I might find meaning in my experiences. This particular late-afternoon in Rome, my feet were tired, having trudged tourist-routs through the city for hours, so I entered a dark church on the side of a big plaza, planning to rest for a few minutes and to secretly whisper some of my worries to God, on the off chance he was somewhere nearby.

When I saw the Caravaggio painting in a side chapel, I nearly stopped breathing, so powerfully did the painting fill my consciousness. I knew the painting was a Caravaggio, even though it wasn't one I had studied, because it used his signature chiaroscuro, and seemed realer than reality. The painting shows an old, wrinkled couple, bowing down in humbly, before a statue of Mary and Jesus, giving themselves up to the mercy of God as if they don't know how else to find the hope to continue. And there before them, beautiful, assuring and holy, the holy mother and child come alive because of their faith and their prayer, and reach out to bless this destitute couple. The old couple in the painting were having the kind of moving experience true faith in God can bring, and I, looking at them, was having the kind of moving experience that a beautiful, emotional painting can bring. For a long time, kneeling in front of the Caravaggio, I cried.

This was the only time I have been so spiritually moved by a painting.  I have seen ten thousand  works of art, and nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine of them have had far less dramatic effects on my lungs and my tear ducts.  I think it is relevant that my most spiritual experience of art happened in a church, with its dark, candle-lit aura, and not in a museum with its well-lit, more secular atmosphere.  I'm sure it was key that this experience came for me while I was on a spiritual quest of sorts, unsure about my life and on a long-dreamed of trip to Rome.  But the truth is, these types of life-changing connections to works of art are as rare as blue moons, and can't be forced.  There are many other ways to experience art, as educational, as evocative of discussion, as beautiful -but more prosaically so, that if perhaps not quite as exciting are just as valid.  An art museum can do far more to give its visitors these kinds of experiences than to try to force spiritual uplift. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reviews of the Pre-Raphaelites exhibit at the Tate London leave me with more questions than they answer

If I were somehow able to teleport, I would spend the next few hours visiting the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate London.  Even the online reproductions of the images on display there, such as Dante Gabrielle Rosetti’s The Beloved (‘The Bride’), from 1865-6, are breathtaking and alluring to my sense of fantasy.  The paintings are moments in intricate, dramatic stories, and one glance makes me want to find out the beginnings, middles, and ends of the tales. 

Since I can’t teleport, I have to rely on the Tate’s website, and the reviewer’s opinion in The Guardian (Jonathan Jones, September 10, 2012) to get some sort of a sense of the exhibit, how the curators arranged and discussed the works of art, how they contextualized them in art history and in Victorian British society. 

The exhibit’s full title is Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which instantly begs the questions –how were the Pre-Raphaelites “avant-garde”?  The word is usually associated in the nineteenth-century context with movements originating in Paris, movements, so the classic art history story goes, that led neatly from one revolution in art to the next, each one influenced by yet leaping beyond the cultural frameworks set up by the revolution before it.  It is hard to make the claim that the British Pre-Raphaelites, men who looked to early Renaissance styles for inspiration, fit into this story, and the Guardian reviewer at least seems to feel that the exhibit falls short of its goal to connect the Pre-Raphaelites with the idea of the avant-garde.  The exhibit, as he sees it “is less an insight into modern art than an appealing celebration of the flawed, bonkers and brilliant Victorian age” (Jones).  And yet, the Pre-Raphaelites were radical in their own ways, particularly in how they recognized the interconnectedness of different art mediums and saw craft and design as the equals of painting.  The Tate exhibit highlights all these mediums, (although on the website at least, paintings dominate) and maybe helps the viewer make exciting connections about the artificial nature of the divide between “high arts” and “applied arts” that the Pre-Raphaelites were so radically exploring.  I would have to visit the exhibit myself to get a sense if this is fully the case. 

The last sentence of the exhibit’s website blurb reiterates the Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in the connections between mediums, and then leaves the reader with an intriguing yet frustratingly incomplete thought.  It states: “The exhibition shows that the Pre-Raphaelite environment was widely encompassing in its reach across the fine and decorative arts, in response to a fast-changing religious and political backdrop and in its relationship to women practitioners.”  Women practitioners.  These are last two words in the whole description, imbued by their placement with importance, and yet are nowhere further explained.  Who were the women practitioners?  There were certainly no women directly involved in the movement, which was, after all, called the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”.  None of the dozen works of art illustrated on the website are by women; are any in the exhibit?  In fact, another connection between the Pre-Raphaelites and other (French) avant-garde movements was the severity of the gender divide in both countries: men were the artists, the masterminds behind paintings, and women were the muses, the subjects of paintings.  Women were not practitioners, so what does the Tate mean by its account?  The last two words in the exhibition description are like the Pre-Raphaelite paintings themselves; they imply a complex, dramatic story, but only show a single moment in the story.  Unfortunately The Guardian reviewer does not mention whether the rest of the story hinted at by the words “women practitioners” is told at the exhibition.  This is why I really need to figure out how to teleport and visit the exhibit myself.