I have a confession to make: art critics baffle me. Especially when they venture to make grand pronouncements about the right way to go about experiencing art in museums. So when I saw the title of Philip Kennicott’s piece in the Washington Post, titled “How to view art: Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much” I will confess that I died a little bit inside. “Sigh. Another ‘you people are doing it all wrong’ piece.” Just what the world needs, another art critic holding forth on the sad state of museums and museumgoing. But, though there is plenty of sneering, there’s also a lot worthy of discussion. And debate. Kennicott’s post didn’t stand alone too long before Jillian Steinhauer posted a reply at Hyperallergic, and Jen Olencziak a rebuttal at Huffington Post. So, let’s take a dive in and see if we can sift some jewels from the bile, shall we?
Kennicott’s piece benefits most from his long experience at looking at art in museums. When he talks about specific techniques and strategies he’s learned that work for him, he’s golden. All too often, though, he falls prey to the critic’s kryptonite; thinking that because he can come up with a plausible explanation based on purely on anecdotal experience and write it cleverly, it must be both true and universal. So, here are some reactions to his five tips on how to view art in a museum.
1. Take time
“The biggest challenge when visiting an art museum is to disengage from our distracted selves.”
Getting visitors to focus on the present is a goal I’m totally in support of, though I’d rephrase Kennicott’s phrasing. I’m prone to these kinds of negative formulations, and it’s been a lifetime’s work to embrace positive ones. It may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but I think it’s important. Rather than disengaging from a negative (busyness and distraction), I’d rather encourage engagement with the here and now as the goal. It’s a lot easier to be against something than to be for something, but being for something is in the end more worthwhile.
<snark>My inner cynic also thinks that being an art critic, Kennicott might be allergic to the word “engagement”, since it’s code for some for “everything I hate that our ‘stewards of culture’ do with audiences that doesn’t encourage silent, solitary, reverential contemplation.”</ snark>
“We are addicted to devices that remind us of the presence of time, cellphones and watches among them, but cameras too, because the camera has become a crutch to memory, and memory is our only defense against the loss of time.”
Here he’s conflating two very different problems; devices demanding attention, and cameras being crutches for remembering, and therefore bad. The device bit I agree with. By all means turn off your phone, or put it on vibrate. Unless you don’t want to. <snark>Or if you’re using it to look at Wikipedia to find information the museum doesn’t tell you, which Kennicott will encourage you to do in the next section. </snark> The camera/crutch formulation deserves a bit more examination. The “ technology is eroding our ability to use our minds” is an old trope. And I mean old, like 4th century BCE old. At least. According to Plato, Socrates warned against the written word as a shallow substitute for discourse:
“this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Sound familiar? You can draw a line from Kennicott back to Socrates and find versions of this concern expressed for any number of technologies that were certain to ruin humanity’s ability to function.
He goes on to say,
“The raging debate today about whether to allow the taking of pictures inside the museum usually hinges on whether the act of photographing is intrusive or disruptive to other visitors; more important, the act is fundamentally disruptive to the photographer’s experience of art, which is always fleeting.”
So, anything that isn’t looking at the art is “fundamentally disruptive”, according to Kennicott. Is it? Readers might recall an article published in Psychological Science earlier this year called “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” which was used by many to support the idea that photography was bad for the photographer’s recall. Linda Henkel’s experiment generated a lot of breathless press and finger wagging when it was announced that participants who were instructed to photograph an object and then asked to recall it the next day fared worse than visitors who were instructed to look at the object and recall it.
Buried in there were two important notes that went largely unreported. One was that visitors who photographed specific details of an object had better recall than visitors who just looked. The other was Henkel’s admission that the way the experiment was constructed had an important difference from the way people actually take photographs in museums. Henkel’s subjects were told which object to photograph, not to pick an object they liked. In other words, they were extrinsically motivated, not intrinsically motivated, which is a fundamental aspect of free choice learning. I’m pretty confident there aren’t many visitors running around taking pictures of things they don’t like in museums. This difference in motivation is fundamental.
Another, “your mileage may vary” sort of issue is that of mission. If a museum’s mission is exclusively to showcase the artistic production of others, then anything that gets in the way of that appreciation could legitimately be considered an impediment. But more and more museums have taken of the additional challenge of encouraging visitors to express (and hopefully increase) their own creativity. In this kind of museum, visitor photography can be an expression of that creative impulse to be encouraged and nurtured. There’s an interesting discussion for museum directors and boards to have. Are you trying to help your visitors become more informed connoisseurs, or give them more experience of the creative process? Is it one or the other? Are the two modalities in a dialectical relationship, or can you encourage both?
Kennicott buries one zinger I particularly resonated with at the very end of this section; the negative impact of admission fees. He calls them “pernicious” because “They make visitors mentally ‘meter’ the experience, straining to get the most out of it, and thus re-inscribe it in the workaday world where time is money, and money is everything.” At moments like this, I appreciate his command of the language. And I agree completely. I’m sure most of us have seen the hurrying tourists, desperately trying to see all the highlights listed in the guide, so that they can get their “money’s worth” out of their trip. Not something we as museum professionals want to encourage, is it?
So, by all means take time, and use that time to be present in the moment, in that space. This is actually good advice for life in general, not museum going, but that’s another subject altogether.
2. Seek silence
“Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people.”
One reason I have difficulty with a lot of criticism is that I wind up feeling like I know more about the critic than I ever wanted to, because so much criticism wraps personal quirks in the garb of universal truths. Noise can be annoying, sometimes. As a neuroscientist pointed out to me yesterday, the way we experience visual inputs and auditory inputs is very different. If you see something you don’t want to see, you can avert your gaze, or close your eyes. Humans have no similar way to filter out auditory inputs. Even blocking your ears is only minimally effective (and makes you look kinda silly), so a valid criticism of museums could be how poorly they design the experience for sound control. This is all, of course, assuming we’re talking only about visual arts.
Big, echoey spaces with hard walls and floors look sweet, but they make even small levels of noise problematic. We’re on the verge of opening a major video installation PEM commissioned. The amount of work we’ve done modifying acoustically “bright” galleries work for an installation that requires you to be able to hear spoken words is pretty major.
“Too many museums have become exceptionally noisy, and in some cases that’s by design. When it comes to science and history museums, noise is often equated with visitor engagement, a sign that people are enjoying the experience.”
Where to begin with this one? I’m pretty confident that there are very few museum architects and experience designers who intentionally create noisy spaces. I would not be surprised if the number were in fact zero. An outcome of their decisions might be noisy spaces, but that’s different than intentionally doing it. This is another favorite tactic of critics, inferring intent where none exists. <snark> Maybe that’s another one of the deceptions (see #3 below) practiced on the public by museums. </snark> It’s sloppy thinking and writing.
I’ll also hazard a guess that the number of museum professionals who go into a space and say “It’s noisy, people must be engaged” is also quite small. Kennicott, like most critics, avoids mention of the real problem Nina Simon mentioned in this post on crowding. He laments the “vast and inevitably tumultuous throngs” that go to big museums to see famous art, but leaves it there.
“But any picture that attracts hordes of people has long since died, a victim of its own renown, its aura dissipated, its meaning lost in heaps of platitudes and cant. Say a prayer for its soul and move on.”
Umm… Yeah, OK. So art must be unpopular to some extent in order to retain its “aura”?
Nobody better tell the Louvre.
3. Study up
“One of the most deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture over the past half century is: You don’t need to know anything to enjoy art.”
A theme throughout this piece, and a lot of criticism posits an alternate reality where museums willfully and systemically deceive and injure the visiting public by “pandering” “surrendering” and “succumbing” to malignant forces in the larger culture. The reasons vary, though incompetence, and venality often appear as root causes. In their unbridled lust to get bodies through the doors, museums say and do anything to be popular. Like awkward teenagers, desperate to fit in and be liked, despite their unfashionableness, they make deceptive promises that ultimately do a profound disservice to the visiting public and to the art that museums allegedly steward for future generations. Note the plural. What we’re discussing here is but one of many deceptive promises. I have to wonder if Kennicott has ever shared any of his theories with a real live museum staff person.
“Our response to art is directly proportional to our knowledge of it.”
I agree with this statement, but in a way that I think undermines Kennicott’s central assertion. I have previously written at length about a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Read them here, here, and here, if you want more information. It’s a great place to visit if you’re at the bottom of the world. One of the conceit’s of the museum is that there are no printed labels. None. Zero. All the interpretation is carried in an iPod you are given when you enter. In the midst of a profoundly transformative visit where I was forced to look at the art, not the interpretation, I came across a smallish painting that looked like a poorly copied Picasso. I registered my dislike of the object and, on a whim, looked up it’s information only to find that it was in fact a Picasso. I had the realization that had there been a tiny tombstone label identifying the work as such, I would have unable to dislike that object as much because of the associations I already carry around about the canon of Western art. Just seeing
Picasso, Pablo Spanish 1881-1973
would’ve colored my emotional response to the work in front of me, and Picasso’s stature in the canon would’ve influenced my feelings about that painting.
There is a place for showing, and a place for telling, and there can be an order in which they happen that allows visitors to have both the direct experience and the received wisdom, without either oppressing the other.
The pendulum, for decades lodged at one extreme, has swung towards the opposite pole, and I can understand Kennicott’s displeasure, but it’s the displeasure of the entitled, seeing others’ needs and comfort placed ahead of his own for a change.
“art is the opposite of popular entertainment, which becomes more insipid with greater familiarity.”
<snark> My sons will doubtless agree with this. Their appreciation of Pokemon never waned. No matter how many times they saw Jessie and James get flung into the sky, it was magic each time. Ditto for Thomas the Tank Engine. </snark>
“Even 10 minutes on Wikipedia can help orient you and fundamentally transform the experience.”
Sounds reasonable to me. I think Wikipedia offers a great challenge to museums. A visitor can access content about just about anything on a mobile device these days. The fact that so many do access content like Wikipedia in museums should tell experience designers something. Their content is either lacking, or not the information visitors are looking for. So, what to do? I can think of a number of strategies for addressing the problem, all of which would result in experiences that do not feature objects with tiny tombstone labels near (but not too near) them.
“If the guide spends all his or her time asking questions rather than explaining art and imparting knowledge, do not waste your time. These faux-Socratic dialogues are premised on the fallacy that all opinions about art are equally valid and that learning from authority is somehow oppressive.”
I get the feeling Kennicott’s not a fan of Visual Thinking Strategies, and that’s OK. Declaring them “faux-Socratic” and fallacies, is not. Unless he has evidence and research to back up the claim, it’s just another example of the “I came. I saw. I invented a narrative that suits my worldview.”
4. Engage memory
“Unfortunately, unlike most things we study and debate, art is difficult to summarize and describe.”
Part of me would love to know what those easy to summarize and describe topics are. Most of my experience with experts in any field is that the more they know, the harder it is for them to summarize and describe what they do.
“Some museum educators, who know these things, will tell you this kind of detail doesn’t matter; they are lying. Always try to remember the name of and at least one work by an artist whom you didn’t know before walking into the museum.”
Back to the conspiracy theory and the museums actively disseminating falsehoods. Sigh… Actually, if the educators believe what they’re saying, they’re not lying. They’re expressing an opinion that conflicts with Kennicott’s. But in his mind, that is obviously the same thing.
5. Accept contradiction
“Art must have some utopian ambition, must seek to make the world better, must engage with injustice and misery; art has no other mission than to express visual ideas in its own self-sufficient language. As one art lover supposedly said to another: Monet, Manet, both are correct. “Susan Sontag once argued “against interpretation” and in favor of a more immediate, more sensual, more purely subjective response to art; but others argue, just as validly, that art is part of culture and embodies a wide range of cultural meanings and that our job is to ferret them out. Again, both are correct.”
Except he’s already made clear that agreeing with Sontag is both wrong and bad. Kennicott’s willing to give lip service to accepting the kind of contradiction, but nothing substantive.
And to tie it all in a nice neat bow, he ends with:
“Some practical advice: If you feel better about yourself when you leave a museum, you’re probably doing it all wrong.”
All those years of museum going on my part were wasted, apparently. Oh well…
Next up: A look at some of the responses to the Kennicott piece.