Art Essay: Looking at art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed
PART IV: Exhibition Places (conclusion)
By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Spring 2014
Although some claim that more people in America visit art museums than they do sports events, the simple fact is that art—its making, its creators, its enjoyment—is an unexplored territory for a great part of our population. On the face of it, this can be a puzzling phenomenon to most art lovers, yet the reasons for it are manifold and complex. This article was an attempt to explore those reasons and, as much as possible, to de-mystify a subject that, perhaps more than most human experiences, is the least mystifying of all. Art—its making, its purposes, its import—are as much a part of mankind’s evolution on this earth as are breathing, eating and multiplying. If that first, pre-literate human who sketched a picture of an animal on a cave wall could accomplish such a thing, then surely any present-day human can come to terms with its making—from the drawing of the simplest stick figure by a child to the very latest “work of art” made today. What that caveman was doing and why he was doing it, differs from today’s artmakers only in the degree of technology and intellectual complexity available to them both. The act of making an image is the same—and belongs as much to us as it does to our ancestors, as much to the child as to the adult, as much to the artist as to the non-artist, as much to the ardent artlover as to that person as yet uninitiated in its delights.
Well…if you’ve gotten this far then you’ve already taken the hardest step you’re going to have to make. As with most things in life—whether it’s mountain-climbing, skiing, sailing, gardening, or what have you—the desire to do a thing is always the first hurdle you have to leap. If you want to do something, well, believe it, you’re already more than half-way there. That mini-step was reading this article; that you got this far means you have a sincere desire to know more. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this article, you will not be willing to say, “I am not interested in—or like—or understand—art.” Get ready for one of the easiest ways to enrich your life!
Like artists, and artwriters, places to exhibit artwork also come in many varieties. Art can be viewed at art museums, galleries, art associations, art schools and studios; it can also be found hanging in restaurants, banks, art fairs, at church socials, hospitals or even at flea markets and garage sales. At most of these places, you will find that it is for sale. Of course, you can find it in people’s homes—but more often than not it is part of a private “collection” and not for sale.
I put collection in quotes in the last line, since, in the artworld, the term most often means a body of work collected by an organization, royal family, person or persons who have since made it available to the public, either in a public or privately owned museum. Thus, the “Havermeyer Collection” may be found as part of the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the “Clark Collection” in the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and so forth. Usually—but not always—these official collections center on a particular artist, medium, period, country or “school” such as, respectively for example, the Picasso Collection, The Vassar College print collection, works of the Italian Renaissance, the Rockefeller African Art collection, or the Impressionists. Conversely, a private home “collection” usually reflects the owners taste(s) and may contain a mixture of all of the above. In any event, whatever the place and whether for sale or not, all of this art is meant to be seen. And either by special invitation or regular visiting hours, you will find that, if you wish, you are welcome to come and look.
Because art museums often seem to be the most intimidating to many, we’ll begin with them. In the scheme of things, and at least as far as this mini-history of image-making goes, museums are relative newcomers. It was not until early in the 18th century in Europe that the first public art museum was built. Previous to that time, only the very wealthy—royal families and the like—collected art and it was hung in their palaces, castles and royal halls for their private enjoyment. If you also were part of that “in” crowd—a local aristocrat or visiting royalty, for instance—you might get to see these collections, but for the large mass of peasantry, such artwork did not even exist—other than what they might see in a church. Most, however—as noted before—saw such art—paintings, stained glass windows, statues—not as “art” but as “messages” from God. In fact, even the church building itself—also now seen as “architectural art”—was viewed in religious rather than “aesthetic” terms. Further, the craftsmen who made these artifacts were themselves not considered as “artists” —most of their names are lost to history—hence, there was no such concept as their making “art”. As with artwriting, the idea of recognizing such “craftsmen” as “artists”, did not fully occur until the Renaissance. For centuries—and even up until the Middle Ages—“artists” were classed along with masons, carpenters, and butchers—the ancient Greeks called them banausos—“artisans”.
The average peon—if he even had a wall to hang it on—might display some of his own handiwork, an example of what we would now call “folk” art. (Incidentally, there are now folk art collections, folk art museums and even folk art galleries where such items are on view and/or sale. Merchants have thought of everything.) Other than that, unless you were an artist yourself or worked at some art guild or master’s workshop, you didn’t have the time, inclination or money to pursue such things as art or its viewing.
At any rate, revolutions, upheavals, and the like were making the average person aware of the things he’d been missing, among them the storehouses of treasures that the nobility had amassed. It would not take long for public museums to pop up all over Europe—and elsewhere. What had previously been the King’s “collection” became the “nation’s” collection, and everyone could now visit and see and enjoy what was once the private purview of the powerful and wealthy. Today, there are museums spread throughout the world, each displaying their treasures for the public. Remember: art IS NO LONGER meant to be a special plaything of the elite, the wealthy, the intellegentsia or the snob. it was and always will be for you. Today, you might still not have the inclination (hopefully, that will change after you get through this book), but time or money is no longer a valid excuse to keep art out of your life.
Museums can be repositories of a wide variety of art, both ancient and modern, or restrict themselves exclusively to one type, or school, or period, or country, or whatever—as noted above when we discussed collections. The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, features the work of Dali, while the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, confines itself to showing the work only of American artists.
Because museums tend to house a nation’s priceless treasures and serve as showplaces for both native and foreign visitors, the buildings that serve as their “homes” tend to be large, showy and intimidating. Places such as the Louvre in Paris, France, for instance, were, in fact, once palaces. For the average person, therefore, there can often be a doubt as to whether just anyone can “drop in” to these imposing buildings. The answer, of course, is “Yes”—they are, after all, public buildings. But, still…
If you were raised like me, you were not brought up to visit museums on either a regular or even sporadic basis. I, for example, did not set foot inside an art museum until I was well into my thirties. For whatever reason, and I tend to think it’s because my family’s roots were the peasantry of Europe, “art” just wasn’t for us. We were practical, down-to-earth people, concerned with making a living and getting along. Sure, we had pictures on the walls—usually cut out from magazines or calendars—and maybe even some of our own “folk art,” but this was merely for decoration. To go and “study” a picture—to make a specific trip to a museum just to “look”—well, that just didn’t happen in my family. Like courthouses and hospitals—other imposing buildings—museums were just one more place to avoid if you could help it.
For a time there, public education used to add trips to museums as a regular practice—and a great many people had the process of looking at art and artifacts de-mystified. Back in my day, such outings were unheard of; today, a great many schools have stopped the practice due to cut-backs in aid. This is truly a great misfortune since the cycle of ignorance is once more put into motion. Those treasures are there for our enjoyment, but if you don’t know of their availability they might just as well be back in the hands of kings and tsars and caesars.
If you were raised like me, then you’ll just have to do the de-mystifying yourself. The first step is to understand that they are public, that is places for you and me to visit. And, like any public place, there are days and hours for visitation. Any local paper can advise you and if they don’t list the times, a telephone book will give the telephone number and, in most cases, even the specific number to call for the times. These days, by looking up and checking out which museums offer information online, you can even take a “virtual” tour of a museum in the comfort of your own home — this eliminates the intimidation factor and it’s an easy way to see what’s in store for you when you finally go for an actual visit.
Once you’ve established when and where you going, the next thing to determine is whether or not there is a fee involved. Again, there are variations. Some museums are free; some ask for a donation; some have a set fee. These things are determined by the method in which the museum is funded and, for now, need not concern us here. You can save this for later when you’ve become an expert museum-goer and are considering a place on the board of directors. For now, we’ll just stick with how much, if anything, it is going to cost you to get in. Usually these things are posted somewhere near the door and, if you’ve done your homework, you have already found out by looking it up or calling ahead. Remember: asking questions is just fine and the reason why most museums have “Information” desks situated near the front door.
I have made the assumption that the museum or museums you have chosen to visit are close to you and that you have not decided to make some extended trip for your first time out. Eventually, however, you will tend to become more selective. You will soon discover that not all museums are equal. As noted above, they house different collections and you will soon tend to become selective. Most likely you will first visit those museums that show things you are interested in. That might even be electric trains, fire engines or dolls. But, since art is the topic here, we are trying to get you to visit art museums. So, you might want to begin with folk art or American Indian art or even a craft museum. (A look at any one of a great many museum guides will show you just how wide a range there are out there.) Whichever you choose, be prepared to spend the good part of a day.
And, remember, you’ve come to look. No one has to tell you how to do that. One of the things I find most annoying when I drop into a museum is to see people standing in front of pictures with earphones stuck on their head. You don’t look through your ears—you look through your eyes. And unless you’re well on your way in art appreciation and are doing some kind of research paper or something, don’t let anyone tell you what to see; just look and see what the picture tells you. If the artist wanted you to hear what he had to say, he would have written a poem or a novel or an essay. He wanted you to see—so just look and tune out any commentary that might be going on around you.
This admonition is no personal whim of mine—I don’t have anything against earphones or recorders or anything like that. But I remember hearing something that will clearly illustrate my concern. Someone once said, “I can teach you how to make gold—the ingredients are inexpensive and the recipe simple. Just fill an ordinary pot with water and stir with a wooden spoon. You must only do one thing while stirring: do not think of ‘hippopotamus’! In a very short time, you will have gold in your pot.”
That’s it. Now just go and try to do it. All the while you are thinking “I will not think of ‘hippopotamus” you are, of course, thinking of it. So, you can never make gold out of water. The point is, that the power of suggestion is so strong and so insidious that we are mostly unaware of its influence. If, for exaple, while you are standing and looking at a painting by Corot, someone says in your ear, “Notice the spot of red that the artist adds to his painting. So often does he do this, that the stroke of red has become one of his famous hallmarks. etc., etc. etc.” (I did hear this on the earphones at one museum). Well, from now on, you’ll never be able not to see that red blob of paint. How much more exciting might it have been if you had discovered that recurring swab of red and read about it later? That discovery, by the way, is precisely why so many people have learned the excitment and pleasure of looking at art. Believe me, there are still things to be discovered! By now, so many are looking for that red spot that they are overlooking other things that the artist has put there. Seek and ye shall find! (Listen and you’ll only find what someone else has already found!)
After museums, perhaps “posh” art galleries can also be intimidating to the newcomer on the artscene. Ought you avoid them? Absolutely not! Not only are they also “public” places, but they are also in the business of promoting and selling art—and this may be the very reason why, to some, they are intimidating. Many such galleries, in fact, cannot be simply entered by walking in off the street but have a “buzzer” or “bell” that one must press in order to be admitted. True, but still, that does not mean that you cannot step up, press the button, and walk in— even if you do not intend to purchase a work of art. That little “announcement” of you standing at the door is simply to alert those inside—who are responsible for items that can be worth thousands of dollars apiece— that you are coming in. They may not be overjoyed that you are just “window shopping”—after all, being “posh”, they are often located in prime locations and have exorbitant rents to meet—but, usually, you will find them courteous, friendly and—since this is what you’re there for—very informative about the art and the artists they represent. So, overcome your timidity and take this excellent opportunity to further expand your knowledge—and enjoyment—of art.
By far, the least off-putting of venues where the perplexed can make initial forays into the artworld without fear of being “exposed” as a “newby” would be to drop into an art fair (a common summer event in most communities), a street exhibition (such as, for example, the annual Washington Square Outside Art Exhibit), or an announced artist reception at some gallery or arts organization where, in all probability you’ll meet a few “newbys” just like yourself.
So, go out and get your feet wet—look, ask questions, walk away if you don’t like it but, above all, ENJOY what you like!
• Art Is One Of Life’s Few, Pure, No-Strings-Attached Gifts To Us—
• We Ought Not Abuse Or Ignore It.
• Art Can Be Silly, Frivolous, Annoying, But Also Interesting, Exciting, Even Spiritual.
• Art Can Depress Us Or Anger Us.
• Art Can Heighten Our Sensibilities.
• Art Can Civilize Us.
• Art Can Be Used As A Release, As Therapy, As A Political Forum, Or At Its Best, As A Source Of Enlightenment And Enrichment.
• Whatever Art Is Or Does, Make It Your Own!