Responses to Kennicott’s “How to view art: “Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much”
As you could tell from my last post, I had a strong negative reaction to Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post article. The incredible pretentiousness of the piece had the predictable effect of spawning responses that are much more amusing takes on the topic, both with their own nuggets of truth in them. And taken in the aggregate, I think there are some important areas of agreement, if you can get through the bile and the snark. So, onwards!
Five Rules for (Kinda) Viewing Art
by Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic
Steinhauer was the first to respond to Kennicott, and her take on his five points often veers into parody, extolling the virtues of plotting your Instagram strategy and quota for a museum visit, and remembering to tweet your lunch. Rather than rebut, or mock, she adopts a millenials version of Kennicott’s agenda for doing a museum visit the right way.Her five to-dos are an interesting comparison to Kennicott’s. They are:
1. Take Time
2. Bring a Friend
3. Go with an Open Mind
4. Don’t Worry Much about Remembering Things
5. Seek Out Art that Fits Your World View
How to View Art: However You Want to
By Jen Oleniczak, Huffington Post
Oleniczak, a museum educator, instructor and member of Museum Hack, takes a more welcoming tone, suitable for somebody who tries to engage museum visitors wherever they are in their knowledge of museums and art. Her five how-tos include:
1. Take the time you have
2. Seek your space
3. Just do you
4. Remember in your own way
5. Ignore everything I said
The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum
Stephanie Rosenbloom, The New York Times
“There is no right way to experience a museum, of course.”
Rosenbloom never references Kennicott’s piece, and given it’s heft, was probably under construction for some time. However it came about, though, the timing of it is too perfect. Instead of proclaiming, Rosenbloom uses cases studies of the effects of looking slowly at art and its effect on viewers’ sense of well-being. It’s chockablock with good quotes on the impact of a museum visit on people’s health, too. Slow Art Day gets a mention, too. Trying to distill it down to the “top five” format of the others, here’s what I came up with.
1. Don’t try to do everything.
2. Seek out works that dovetail with your interests.
3. Research the museum’s collection online in advance of your visit.
4. Make your own soundtrack at home and take headphones to the museum.
5. Ask yourself “What are the things that, if I do not see them, will leave me feeling as if I didn’t have a New York (or any other city) experience?”
“Sometimes you get more for the price of admission by opting to see less.”
My Top Five
So, what else can I offer that hasn’t already been said? To test that out, I came up with my own Top Five list.
1. Don’t try to do it all.
Bite off less than you think you can manage in the allotted time and see even less if you can.
2. Document what you like
Write it down, imitate it, photograph it, buy the book of it
3. Respond to the art.
Love it, hate it, whatever. Art exists to provoke a response in us. The worst thing you can do an artwork is to feel nothing.
4. Make a connection between the art and your life if you can.
One way you help replenish the aura around art is to find a connection between it and yourself.
5. Come out more informed than you entered.
Nobody ever got a PhD from going to a museum, but you can know more than when you went in.
What can we take from these lists? Well, the big one, of course, is the exhortation to slow down, see fewer objects, and see those objects more closely.
Looking at the Southern Cross
One of the great delights of working at the Peabody Essex Museum is getting to walk through the galleries and establish a long-term relationship with the objets on display. One of my personal favorites is a painting by the American marine painter Fitz Henry Lane. “Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor” depicts a ship slowly making her way out of Boston Harbor on a calm day. I’ve long been a fan of Lane’s and I would always give this painting my time when I first started at the museum. And It seemed to give up new details to me every time I studied it. I used to look just at the ship itself, admiring the care with which the rigging was delineated. Lane was a man who knew his ships.
It wasn’t long til I realized that between the foremast and mainmast I could see the silhouette of the Massachusetts State House in the background, perfectly framed by the rigging. That led to several sessions of looking at the shore, trying to locate the location of the ship, something that would likely have been obvious to mariners of Lane’s day, who were used to looking at Boston from a distance. Later on I noticed the two men rowing in the foreground, hunched in their boat, and that led to mediations on costume. My current fixation is the depiction of the wind, as evidenced by the sails and flags flying on the ships. It’s a light breeze. And so on. My appreciation for the work doesn’t diminish from repeated viewings. Instead, the painting keeps giving me new things to see. Sound familiar? Yup, Kennicott and I (and Steinhauer, Oleniczak, and Rosenbloom, as well as all those educators Kennicott loathes who ask visitors to look at art and say what they see) are in agreement on the importance of looking and slowing down.
Mr. Scudder, the Fish, and Dr. Agassiz
This emphasis on looking closely reminded me of one of my favorite iOS apps, Fish: A Tap Essay by Robin Sloan. The app is really a meditation on mindfulness, or “the difference between liking something on the Internet and loving something on the Internet.” You should just go download it and try it now. Come back when you’re done, OK? It’s worth it.
Sloan’s text is based on a famous story of the great 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz, and a student of his. The student has come to Agassiz’s lab to learn what the great man has to teach. Agassiz comes and greets the newbie, takes a fish out of a jar of alcohol, places it in a tin tray and tells the student to look at the fish and tell him what he sees. Agasissz leaves, and the student looks. Time passes, the student looks more and more until he’s certain he’s seen everything. Agassiz comes back much later and asks him what he’s seen. The student dutifully rattles off what he’s observed, which fails to impress the scientist. “Look at your fish!” he says and leaves.
The more the student looks, the more he finds; new details, new characteristics that change his understanding of the fish. In the version of the story I know, ( Scudder, Samuel H. [April 4, 1874]. “Look at Your Fish”. Every Saturday 16: 369–370) the student is Samuel H. Scudder, later a famous entomologist and paleontologist in his own right, and Scudder’s encounter with the fish lasts three whole days before Agassiz is satisfied that he’s “seen” the fish. There’s a beautifully sombre painting of Scudder in the Museum of Science’s collection, almost entirely black, with Scudder, dressed in black. Up in the corner, the artist has painted a butterfly, Scudder’s first love as a naturalist, and the only blotch of color in an otherwise monochrome work. And what is Scudder doing? Looking down at whatever he’s studying. According to Scudder, learning to look was the biggest gift Agassiz gave him.
And to bring this back to looking at art, the story comes around full-circle as the anecdote with which Ezra Pound opens the ABC of Reading, his 1934 work of literary criticism. Pound’s trying to get readers to slow down and really look at the words on the page.
If there’s one thing all the parties seem to agree on, it’s this.
What do you see?
Look some more!