The thoughts I expressed in my last blog entry were informed by, and in some ways an argument against, the ideas in the essay by James Cuno, “The Object of Art Museums”, published in the 2004 compilation book Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust. The book brings together essays from six high level art museum directors and curators, musing (no pun intended) on the proper shape of the Art Museum in the twenty-first century. And all of the six gentlemen (the essays were all by men) generally agreed that for the museum to retain its status as a trusted cultural institution, it needed to return its focus from fancy educational programs and new technological gadgets geared toward attracting visitor participation, back to a focus on the art objects that are the center of a museum’s identity.
I don’t exactly agree…
Some of the essays in the book did a better job than others of convincing me that an overabundance of information and programs detracted from the experience of the artwork. John Walsh’s essay “Pictures, Tears, Lights, and Seats”, pondered the shift from a past time when the appropriate response to great works of art was deep emotion –crying or laughing, to today when the appropriate response is usually intellectual advancement, irrelevant of any emotional response. When did art shift from being largely about the heart to being largely about the mind?
I love Walsh’s question, because I had never thought about it this way before, and it strikes me as remarkably true about how I perceive and connect with art: in focusing on connecting to it with my intellect, I forget to notice how it makes me feel. I think I could find a lot of satisfaction and meaning by sometimes turning off my intellect, or at least setting it to the side, when I visit a museum, and letting works of art strike more my heart. The museum too, could encourage emotional responses, perhaps by changing lighting, or by reflecting not just on facts in information cards, but on touching stories.
Reading James Cuno’s essay, on the other hand, my pen was kept busy marking the places where I disagreed with his vision of art, and how museum visitors best relate to it. He believes that an art museum is a “steward of beauty”, the noblest of quests, because when visitors experience beauty, they “experience an ‘unselfing,’ and all the energy [visitors] formerly put into the service of protecting, guarding, and advancing the self is then free to be in the service of something else” (Cuno 50). It strikes me, that museums aren’t stewards of beauty; beauty can be found everywhere. Besides, whether or not something strikes one as beautiful depends on ones personal taste, and current mood, as well as cultural trends. Cuno’s perspective on beauty seems far too elitist, and far too absolutist. Besides, I disagree that seeing something beautiful is an “unselfing”, as he puts it. Noticing beauty gives me a stronger connection to my self –things we find beautiful are things we can, on some level, feel a kinship with.
In my experience, beauty is enhanced by context. Cuno argues that we should remove labels from the walls so that visitors can contemplate beauty undistracted. And then he delegitimizes his own argument in giving examples of beautiful objects and convincing us to be excited about these objects by the thoughtful anecdotes he relates. Far from being distractions, stories, words are powerful ways to connect to objects and their beauty. Labels, and other ways that museums use to connect the art objects to stories, shouldn’t be removed; they should be created with utmost care, since they are such a valuable
In sum: slow down, connect not just intellectually to works of art, but emotionally. Accept the power of story and contextualization to make a work of art more powerful, and memorable to the viewer, give the viewer these stories to allow the him or her a greater chance of a sense of kinship with the art.