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Speed-Appreciation, or Chardin

August 5, 2009

How To Visit a museum

I read the recent piece in the NYT about how no one stops and actually looks at things in museums. Pausing instead just long enough to snap a photo (increasingly with unnecessarily professional-grade cameras), the crowds breeze through the hallowed halls. Edward Winkleman touched on it, encouraging a museum-sketching flashmob sort of event. Some of the original piece struck me as a little “kids these days” in tone, but the gist of it was right on, and the fact that Michael Kimmelman, the author, began a project of sketching monuments and such struck a chord (I am not a good sketcher). He ends the piece with a charming anecdote of girls in the Louvre enjoying a lingering, non-label-reading, playful engagement with the artworks.

Also last week, I read a really lovely quotation of Diderot in an essay by Arthur Danto on Chardin: “One stops in front of a Chardin as if by instinct, just as a traveller exhausted by his trip tends to sit down, almost without knowing it, in a place that is green, quiet, well-watered, shady, and cool.” * One can imagine just how it would feel, after wandering through halls of large  melodramatic history paintings in a Salon, to arrive at a picture that, almost magically, returns you to something that you know to be important, something both familiar and transformed, immediate, and treasured.

from wikimedia

from wikimedia. Un Canard col-vert attaché à la muraille, et une bigarade. ca. 1730

So I began to think about why people go to museums and how we behave in them, and I reflected a little on some experiences I’ve had doing some slow looking and engaging with artworks. The question of why go to museums, and its over-question, “Why do we even have them,” is a (many) book-length problem, involving ideas of curiosities, conquest, world exploration, Eurocentrism, and many different philosophies about humankind’s achievements. Museums house our national and “world cultural” treasures (those that can be removed to museums, anyway), and receive support from governments and many prestigious institutions and people in order to preserve and sometimes display these things. Limiting the question to art museums, today’s visitors, and the actual visiting, what’s the point? To get cultured? To kill time? To show evidence of our taste, class, and intelligence? To actually learn? to appreciate the past, or other places/peoples, or the present?

And to the issue of the photos. I’ve seen similar behavior many times at sites of great natural beauty (or any site. This train of thought coincided with a visit to the Palace of Fine Arts in SF, where lots of tour buses went by, and lots of people took pictures without even getting off the bus). People walk to a ledge or whatever, snap a photo, and keep walking, having looked at the scenery on the three-inch LCD longer than just with their own eyes. What is the purpose of this picture –  it can’t be a memento the great experience you had at that outlook over the Grand Canyon, because you hardly had an experience. In a way the action of photo-taking has a generous impulse, the idea that you could share this experience (or a facsimile) with someone else. And photo-takers must take that to heart, sort of; it’s rare for flickr, for example, to have fewer than 5,000 uploads per minute. Taking a picture is also way more convenient than, say, sketching the sculpture at hand, or composing a few lines about it. A photograph is also a way of adding something to one’s collection, as Susan Sontag wrote. I think this is especially true of self-in-front-of-something pictures (not that I don’t take those myself), that it’s an action of staking a claim by saying “I was there.” Thinking back to the Grand Canyon, though, you were there doing –  what, exactly?

from Flickr user Beppie K

from flickr user Beppie K

Returning to imaginary Diderot sighing before imaginary Chardins: some artworks really do reward you for looking long and closely. You change and they change, yielding up their better treasures. Some, though, despite their evident virtuosity and probable historical significance, just don’t get that deep. For many, the experience of obligatory tourist museum visits must be like Diderot’s wandering through the halls filled with those dry, gilt-framed, nonsensical academic canvases, but without any Chardins to rest upon: nothing grabs them, even if they try they don’t recognize themselves in what they see; nothing is relevant. One may attempt, by reading a label, to get something more out of what is one the wall – and I believe labels are really valuable – but the artwork itself expresses thoughts, information, narratives, messages, as well. And these are right before you.

Some artworks pull you in towards their surfaces with detail. Like the intensely frotted surface of a Soutine still life, a surface that you feel with your eyes. Or a venerable old masterpiece like the Isenheim altarpiece, which I’ve been lucky to see, a work that has both an immense totality and a whole bunch of devastating, beautiful, and minute details. These hold you with a great deal of visual stimulation, and you respond emotionally, thinking maybe of mortality, or divinity, or whatever. Other works get you very differently, in their bigness, wholeness, and mysteriousness. I’m thinking here of Rothko canvases (many have written about their experiences viewing these, including James Elkins in a sweet book called Pictures and Tears) and such. They affect you and you’re almost not sure how. I’ve seen a couple of Jenny Saville paintings in person, and as I looked I kept walking right up to the canvas, and then away to see the whole, and then back to grasp some particular passage, and so on, for half an hour, hardly noticing that I was moving. And then I went home and looked at them in books, which was not the same at all.

from flickr user marshall astor

Cornelia Parker's Anti-Mass 2005. from flickr user marshall astor

Recently I had a wonderfully intense few moments of slow looking with a piece in SF’s deYoung Museum. Anti-Mass, by UK conceptual artist Cornelia Parker, is made from bits of charred wood from a Southern church destroyed by arson. I was a little familiar with the artist’s work from back when I subscribed to art magazines, and it wasn’t even the first time I’d seen this piece in particular. It and some of other well-known works are made of the blown-apart bits of some structure, suspended in the air in the dimensions of a cube, as if the explosion were somehow paused and made orderly. This time I was drawn to it, both because it is so evocative – of violence, of the fear of terrorism, of death, of rebirth from death – and because the form itself, the unsolid cube of irregular, beautifully black bits of wood, is so beautiful and mysterious. As with the Saville paintings, I wanted to get close and then far, first touch it with my eyes and then see its whole (its location in the gallery sucks for this, sadly). It didn’t last long, but it was sort of sublime.

I didn’t take a picture; I remember it, though, really well. I do think that long looking is wonderful, but I’m not inclined to think that speed-appreciation by the masses is a sign of crisis. I speed-appreciate a lot of things, and dedicate myself to a few, the ones that matter most to me. I don’t think the blame belongs on the masses of philistines tromping through the Louvre; perhaps they are getting out of it what they wanted, really, and they go on to devote their attention to things that matter more to them. Perhaps the things that will really move them have not been made yet, or at least put into museums.

* Arthur C. Danto, “Chardin,” in Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life. Columbia University Press (2005), 39.

One Comment leave one →
  1. david permalink
    November 4, 2009 9:39 am

    Love the blog

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