Tag Archives: reading

How We Experience Art: A Reflection on 2 Recent Books

I have to admit that I am a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to books about how we look at and experience art.  So when I found out about the recently published books by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford as well as Ossian Ward, I was more than just a little curious (I ordered them right away and began to dig in during the winter holidays).

Rendez-Vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art, by Ossian Ward (Laurence King Publishing, 2014)

books-photo-murawski

First, let me dive a bit into the pages of Rendez-Vous with Art.  This book reads like an enjoyable travelogue of the great museums of the world, retelling in lush detail a series of art encounters as filtered through the interests, knowledge, passions, and opinions of de Montebello (Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 31 years, 1977-2008).  At café moments and interludes, both authors engage in brief conversations about how we experience art, how we think about it, and how we look at it. The book is, as the authors write, “an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art” (9).  Visiting the Louvre, the Prado, the Palazzo Pitti, the Mauritshuis, the British Museum, the Brancacci Chapel, the Met, and other notable art sites, their conversations focus on their experiences with masterpieces and lesser known works that allow them to escape the crowds of some of the more popular cultural destinations.

I happened to be reading this book during the days leading up to a workshop I was facilitating with our docents at the Portland Art Museum, spending time in the galleries looking at an absolutely electric El Greco painting on loan to our museum from the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I was searching for a new way to frame our extended experience with this masterpiece — a way to prompt our viewing of the painting in a way that could transcend the art historical facts of the painting’s creation and context.  Could a work like this speak to us today about something meaningful?  As a viewer, what does this work mean to me?  De Montebello provided the tee-up:

“A characteristic of great works of art is that they persistently catch our attention and beckon us. It is like a piece of music that we want to listen to ad infinitum or a book that we love re-reading — because one never exhausts what a great work has to give, whether it’s in the detail or the whole…. It has an ability not just to defy time, but also to communicate through time, even to people who do not and cannot know much about the beliefs of the people who made it or the message it was supposed originally to have. Somehow, inexplicably, a great work of art transcends its own age.” (31, 34)

While I may not agree with de Montebello when it comes to how we shape visitor learning experiences and use social media & digital technologies to broaden public engagement (among other things), I did enjoy his grandiose statements about the powerful nature of experiencing art.  The hustle and bustle of a crowded art museum  can certainly be music to a museum educator’s ears, yet I know that many of us, like myself, also seek out the more intimate, quiet, deeply rewarding experience of being the only person standing in front of a masterpiece (how many of us sneak into the galleries when the museum is closed to steal away our own time with art?).  De Montebello muses on the challenge of viewing art amidst the crowds of popular, well-visited institutions … or, as they write, “the hell of looking at art with other people” (128). As Gayford recounts, de Montebello originally wanted the title of the book to be “The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.”

At times, both authors seem rather grumpy about the millions and millions of people who crowd into museums to see masterworks of culture and history, but their questions about how we experience art in these contexts raises interesting issues about marketing, image reproductions, and digital collections.  For example, given the deep crowds of camera-phone-wielding tourists crammed in front of the Mona Lisa on any given day, is it more valuable or meaningful to look at a high quality digital image on my iPad (here in the quiet comfort of my own home or office)?  And how does our repeated exposure to beautiful, massive publicity banners and posters showings close-up details of masterpieces effect our expectations of the actual museum gallery experience with these artworks?

This is what it is like when you're standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.  Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
This is what it is like when you’re standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

How Do We Experience Contemporary Art?

OK, let me shift gears here, from talking about experiences with Egyptian sculpture, Renaissance masterpieces, and nineteenth-century portraiture to experiencing the art of now — contemporary art that can be scattered across a gallery floor, projected on multiple walls, consuming a massive space, requiring us to talk to someone or eat something, confusing, perplexing, and having no apparent start or finish.

“The old rules of not touching a work of art or of reverentially paying homage to each picture in a state of quiet awe are now gone….” (Ward 8)

Carsten Höller "Test Site" installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license
Carsten Höller “Test Site” installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Ossian Ward’s Ways of Looking makes a fresh pairing with Rendez-Vous with Art, focusing on art created since 2000 that frequently expects viewers to perform, interact with, or complete the piece in front of you.  In this highly readable, straightforward book, Ward offers a set of tools that go beyond just looking and might help provide a way to make sense of contemporary art.  While an art critic and art world insider himself, I think he succeeds in his attempts to combat the ubiquitous and opaque ‘art speak’ that so frustratingly surrounds contemporary art.  He writes (and I quite agree):

“Too often, these gatekeepers [curators and critics] stand in the way of the understanding of a work of art by using a morass of theoretical jargon and pseudo-philosophical art-speak. This kind of clever-clever writing about art does very little to bolster or boost an artist’s cause, other than perpetuating more reams of similarly hard-to-fathom ‘discourse.'” (20)

So how does Ward propose we cut through the verbose jargon and allow for better experiences with contemporary art?  His central foundation is to “start from zero” and wipe the slate clean — tabula rasa — using the first word TABULA as a mnemonic device for the approach he proposes.  While I don’t want to give away all the details (after all, you should read the book yourself and explore this approach), here is a very brief summary:

  • Time: Always a good idea to start with a few minutes of calm contemplation, looking, and exploration.  Take stock.
  • Association: What is the personal resonance or ‘hook’ for you?  This can be a visual attraction or a connection with a memory or experience you’ve had.  Make some associations.
  • Background: Use some basic ways to learn a bit more about the backdrop of the piece or the artist — using the title, label, press release, museum brochure or website, etc.
  • Understand: After looking, connecting, and learning a few basic background facts, the piece is more likely to sink in a bit more.  What might be some broader messages at play here?
  • Look again: Simple as it sounds.  After a bit of pondering, go back and look or engage with the work even more. Did you miss a detail?
  • Assessment: After these first four steps, you’re now in a better place to decide whether you think the work is good or not.  But Ward reminds us not to hastily jump to this step (which we all do far too often).

Much about this method of looking at contemporary art or thinking about an encounter makes sense, and reaffirms many existing pedagogies and educational philosophies already informing museum practice.  In addition, throughout his book, Ward provides us with wonderfully pithy ‘Spotlight’ features that lead us through parts of the TABULA approach with individual works of contemporary art — including explorations of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Carsten Holler’s whimsical Tate Modern installation Test Site (2006), Glen Ligon’s Warm Broad Glow (2005), and Roger Hiorns’s amazing and enormous Seizure (2009).  When the TABULA approach seems a bit lacking, at least the discussions of contemporary art are enjoyable and digestible.

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Everything Comes Full Circle

The entire experience of reading these two ‘looking at art’ books side by side became eerily connected when I reached the final pages of Ward’s book only to find a Spotlight on Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1661) — a painting that de Montebello and Gayford could have easily included in their travels.  Ward comes around full circle to the more traditional ways of looking at art that form the foundation of Rendez-Vous with Art,  writing: “there is no better way to slow down and tabulate one’s appreciation of art than by sitting with one of the Old Masters.”  No matter what approach or strategy you take when it comes to encountering art of any time period or culture, is there anything more essential than spending time to look, perceive, and use our multitude of senses to take it in?

“It’s not rude to stare at art.  Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s the least you can do. Stop. Breathe. Relax. Don’t think, just look, take it all in. Soak up your surroundings, feel the space in front of you, set your mind free, let your internal monologue recede and allow your eyes to settle.  When was it that you last allowed yourself such a moment?” (Ward 148)

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Featured header image: Carsten Höller panorama by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

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Museum Educators Do Still Read Books … Even the Classics

We recently discovered that museum educators certainly do have the time to read books! This past July, a group of us participated in the inaugural ArtMuseumTeaching Online Book Club to look at the new book Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections, and Collaboration (2013), edited by Viv Golding and Wayne Modest. With student-centred and community-centred practice at the core of what we do as museum educators, the book raised lots of ideas in relation to theory and practice and how different roles across the museum consider or enact participatory practice.

learninginthemuseumFor our second Online Book Club, we thought it might be a good idea to visit (or for many of us, re-visit) a classic text Learning in the Museum (1998) by George Hein, Professor Emeritus at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. In this pivotal book, Hein presented an overview of the traditions and history of museum education, and developed a key framework for understanding educational theories as well as making connections with visitor studies research. Hein raised education and visitor experience as important considerations for museum professionals overall as museums are forced to “justify their existence”.

View the video archive below of the October 1st On Air Google Hangout with Michelle Grohe (Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum) and myself.

Some provocations for readers as we near the Online Book Club discussion:

    • Does Learning in the Museum influence the practice of museum educators today? How so? Are we still in a position of having to “justify [our] existence”?
    • Have new learning theories emerged from within art museum education research and practice since the book was written? Did Hein pave the way for this thinking?
    • Does ‘education’ and ‘constructivism’ have a specific meaning for museum educators? Does meaning change across the organisation?
    • Have art museums changed to become constructivist-learning spaces for visitors as Hein advocates? Can we share examples from our practice to demonstrate this?
    • You can also check out a great Q&A with George Hein posted on the Getty’s blog while he served as their Guest Scholar back in 2011.

We would love to know if or how your practice today connects to the ideas outlined in Hein’s book (now 15 years old). Then help us to decide if this book deserves ‘classic’ status!

To learn about this and future Google Hangouts and Online Book Club discussions hosted via ArtMuseumTeaching.com, join the Art Museum Teaching Google Community.

Read on!

Note: Thanks to everyone who participated in the October 1st Online Book Club Hangout. Here is a link to the video archive:

Do Museum Educators Still Have Time to Read Books?

bookpile
photo by signalstation

While many of you may immediately be thinking “heck no … I never have time to read,” the answer is actually YES.  And to prove it, ArtMuseumTeaching.com is launching a new Online Book Club.  As educators and museum professionals, keeping our head buried at our desk or constantly busy in programs can only get us so far.  And I know that many of us (including myself) struggle to carve out the time to read the publications coming out each month or even the classic texts of yester year.  Perhaps we’re all too busy reading blogs (not entirely a bad thing). Not only is it hard to find the time to keep up with the reading, it may also be a challenge to find ways to make certain theoretical or academic texts relevant to our own practice and professional work on a day-to-day basis.

So let’s bring back the books!  This summer, connect with current thinking and museum colleagues through a series of Google Hangout Book Club conversations that will bring a variety of ideas and questions to key publications in the field of museum education (past and present). These discussions will not simply “review” the book at hand, but focus on how what’s on our bookshelf can inform our practice. How do ideas forwarded by certain authors and scholars connect with our day-to-day programs and work in museums?  What new ideas might be sparked from the pages of current or classic texts in museum learning?

golding-coverThe inaugural Online Book Club was held on July 8th at 3pm Pacific (6pm Eastern) focusing on the recent book Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections, and Collaboration (2013) edited by Viv Golding and Wayne Modest.  For this discussion, ArtMuseumTeaching.com partnered with The Incluseum blog to take a deep dive into this collection of essays that explore the complex issues arising from recent approaches to collaboration between museums and their communities.  The authors of this book outline a range of critical pedagogies and present important case studies that “challenge us to move beyond shallow notions that both elide the complexity of community identities and make simplistic claims to engagement by museums.”

As Viv Golding states in her introduction, this book explores best practice examples in detail to highlight how these provide “a better model of community collaboration” (3).  In the chapter by Wayne Modest on youth participation and co-curating with teenagers, he addresses core thought-provoking questions such as:

“Who benefits from engagement, the museum or the community? How can we engage communities to their benefit?  Who drives engagement, communities or the museum?”

Please view the video archive for this Hangout below — a great discussion about how the essays and case studies featured in its pages might connect to the work we’re doing on the ground in our museum or community.

To learn about future Google Hangouts and Online Book Club discussions hosted via ArtMuseumTeaching.com, you can join the Art Museum Teaching Google Community or follow me on Twitter (@murawski27).

Have ideas for other books we could feature in future Online Book Club discussions?  Let us know in the Comments section below, and we’ll try to pull together a few more before the summer is over.  We have some great ideas, so we’ll have more information available soon.

Read on!

Note: Thanks to everyone who participated in the July 8th Online Book Club Hangout. Here is a link to the video archive:

We look forward to continuing this exciting conversation as well as this series of Online Book Club discussion! Stay connected with the Art Museum Teaching Google Community to learn about upcoming discussions. And, as always, if you have any ideas for a future Hangout or online get-together, let me know and we can work to schedule here within the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community.