More responses to “High Culture Goes Hands-On”

As you know, I got a little agitated last week. Here are some of the more nuanced responses to last week’s New York Times piece on experience in (art) museums. If you’re a glutton for punishment, the Times has helpfully gathered together some of the letters to the editor about the article (complete with a lovely illustration of a blindfolded visitor whacking a Calder mobile with a stick. Way to keep it classy, New York!)

Samuel Basson (@samuelbasson)

His insight on Kois’ essay

The kind of quiet contemplation of objects she favors has its place in contemporary museums, and so does experience—sometimes even experiences that might seem on first glance frivolous.

We have found that one type of art does not cheapen the other. [Emphasis mine]

What Samuel has expressed is a truth that I think is hard for visitors to comprehend, and easy to ignore – the “museum audience” is a construct with little basis in reality. The motivations for visiting a museum are diverse, and our audiences often come with conflicting expectations. In Dobrzynski’s circles, the sentiment may be that art museums are catering less to their preferred way of experiencing art in favor of other ways.


Courtney Johnston, (@auchmill)
Best of 3: One foot in the art world

The Sleep No More phenomena – which had museum thinkers flogging themselves to think of ways to bring the aesthetic and involvement of interactive theatre into galleries – caused me to wonder whether museums and galleries have a quiet but deep envy of their more immediately, physically affecting cousins: dance, theatre and music.

At the same time, decrying the programming of a Martin Creed work as experience-seeking – a desire to ‘activate’ the museum – seems a little offbeam…

The Creed work Dobrzynski focuses on – Work No. 965: Half the Air in a Given Space -is interactive, experiential. That’s how the artist made it. That’s how the museum is obligated to show it. Any other decision would lose integrity. And that seems to me to be where Dobrzynski goes a little off-kilter here: it is not necessary (sic) the museum approach that has changed, but the art. [Emphasis mine] Sure, museums are responding to the reactions they see from audiences (who do, by and large, enjoy experiential works) but they are also responding to generations of artists who have decided to make the viewer or visitor part of the work.

Ah, Courtney! You have put your finger on something important. Is Dobrzynski’s concern misdirected, or is it just easier to point at art museums because they’re an easy, immobile target for a larger dislike of contemporary art?

This point is shared by a Daphpne Nash, a freelance writer in New York.

Daphne Nash
Is museum programming too “experiential”?

[E]xperiential events should not displace authoritative, educational programming. Really what Dobrzynski is talking about here are spectacles, performances and game-like adventures meant to entertain. Or at least that’s how she frames it up. But if “experiences” are a trend in our culture, it only makes sense that contemporary art would reflect this. [Emphasis mine] And museums, for the purposes of this post, are about art.

Have I missed anything else interesting?


  1. It’s an interesting point, whether the negative sentiment is really about museums or instead the product of an underlying dislike of contemporary art. Regardless, museums need to stay current to stay relevant. Visitors always have the freedom to explore what they like and ignore what they don’t.


  2. I’m a little surprised that you seemingly didn’t give my argument some consideration. After all, while these comments do bring up interesting questions regarding preferences (of museums, of visitors) I think that the argument I put forward looks to comprehensively make sense of what is happening with the visit. To remind: I think it’s about the the visitor being enabled to self-author meaning from the raw materials of the exhibition, which brings together changing museologies and an ever expanding consumerism that focuses on the agency of the individual. Lots of people seem quite wiling to talk about the ramifications of this change in museum visiting, but few seem willing to discuss the causes.


  3. Daphne and Courtney convey the point, that art itself may be changing to a type which “make(s) the viewer or visitor part of the work”. This is simply due to the fact that the neo-liberal language of engagement and participation is what all the funding sources available today demand of artists.

    Just look at the language involved in an arts organization receiving a grant from the NEA. Not only do you have to write into your proposals the required mantras of; engagement, participation, inclusion, and community, you then have to agree to fill out a followup survey showing how it was that your proposal accomplished all those goals.

    Those engagement and participation requirements get passed on down to the state arts organizations which enforce the very same required language. Foundations and private philanthropy more and more are changing their programs of support to include such language.

    The reality today is that if you are an artist or performer who hopes to get funding for a project, exhibition, or performance from private, state or federal sources your only hope is to gear your project to something that involves the language of engagement and participation.
    What is so bad about that you may be asking yourself? That system of public support completely ignores any type of art that may challenge the system, that may be anarchistic, radical or questions the government. Would Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial have been built today as a project that engages and encourages participation or would those who control the purse strings deemed it too confrontational and something that the people wouldn’t want? Would Leon Golub’s powerful paintings of oppression, rape, and governmental torture have any chance of garnering any of today’s public dollars?


  4. Experience is cool…but to me it IS NOT ART

    To claim that all personal experience is art is to imply that everyone’s processing of experience is equally rich. I too have stopped by woods on a snowy evening, but did not experience it in the same way Robert Frost did. My own having been there was not the ultimate. Had Frost simply said “There is a snowy wood over there, go check it out for yourself,” some people may have gone, only to be left confused and cold. Instead, Frost sat down and transformed his experience into art. He labored, and in his labor added meaning to his experience and turned it into art: the only form via which one’s experience can be successfully transferred to another.

    My complete essay on this topic


  5. It’s a fascinating point, if the negative sentiment is actually about museums or rather the merchandise of the underlying dislike of recent art. Regardless, museums have to stay current to remain relevant. Site visitors always cost nothing to understand more about the things they like and ignore the things they don’t.


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