How is experiencing a work of art not like reading?

October 11, 2013    reading art

I’m beginning to think that this question is more interesting than the question that I posed back in July, “How is experiencing a work of art like reading?” (A question that I can’t claim to have come up with on my own, as it is a guiding question behind Words & Pictures.)

This question asks us to consider the objectness of a work of art. As Olga Hubard remarks in “Complete Engagement: Embodied Response in Art Museum Education” (2007), “Unlike the contents of written texts, artworks present themselves as physical (or virtual) entities that exist in the same space as we do.”

I was reminded of this objectness recently, when a first-grade teacher, visiting the museum with her class, pointed out to her students that one of the paintings they had seen a digital projection of in class–Don Eddy’s Green Volkswagen–was on display just across the Great Hall in view of the group. The students were absolutely delighted to see this painting in person, as if its presence were magical in some way that a first grader can’t quite articulate.

Recent changes in our tour structure have forced this question of objectness to the forefront for me. Many of the artworks that we view and discuss on our Words & Pictures museum visits are now displayed on a cart in our classroom, brought out of storage temporarily. One effect is to highlight the fact that these artworks are three dimensional and transportable. I must admit, there is something more inherently approachable about a painting that is hung on a humble cart than one that is installed in the galleries, attached by some unseen force to a pristine, white wall. In this new context, in front of our tables and chairs, sharing a room with crayons, pencils, and other everyday art supplies, artworks from our collection become familiar. They seem to say, “I am just a painting. Come on over. Have a close look.”

This is a notion that I’m sure many artists, educators, and theorists have stumbled upon, but we don’t have to turn any further than the first few pages of John Dewey’s Art as Experience to read his eloquent call for mingling the art and the everyday. He writes, “The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen.”

A great museum experience, it seems to me, must keep the objectness of artwork at the forefront and embrace the kinds of authentic interactions that viewers have with things “that exist in the same space as we do.”