The Temple of Responsive Objects

What is a modern museum?

Conceived as a place for people to learn about and experience art, they were often built as secular temples to sacred objects.

Today, people do not respond this way to a museum. My own personal observations, as well as formal studies, show that people spend a few seconds looking at a work of art, and then a little more puzzling over the associated label.

Museums are desperate.

Museums are willing to do almost anything to bring people in – blockbuster exhibits, films, music, display big donor collections, shows based on contemporary culture, even put relatively skimpily clad women on their monthly newsletters.

Museum directors like to cite statistics demonstrating that more people visit museums than sporting events. They ignore the millions that watch on TV, or engage in fantasy sports. Compare those few seconds that museum visitors look at art with the engagement of the sports crazed fan in a bar, an individual obsessed with their team, or those individuals who watch baseball or football just so they can record the individual details for the statistical analysts.

The modern museum sees itself in competition for the entertainment dollar. At an amusement park or a sporting event people experience emotions: terror, fear love, companionship, and joy in group settings. We experience our raw response to the world around us – just as in life itself.

For too long, understanding art has been handed over to the formalist, the people who wanted to intellectualize, or look at historical context. Feelings and emotions about art were to be suppressed as primitive, dangerous, or unimportant. This is an outdated modernism.

We find meaning wherever we find it, often inventing it as we form our relationship to tradition and innovation — it is just our raw response to the world around us. Reasoning is a way of trying to understand our response, or communicate your feelings to others. It is not a substitute for emotionally relating to a work of art.

If we look at art this way, experience what feelings it brings up in us – disgust, joy, love, hate, confusion, or whatever – we will once again experience art the way previous generations did – in relationship to life they lived, and to the world in which they lived.

We must go back to that ancient view of humanity – reinforced by modern biology and neuroscience – we are beings who cloak our emotions with reason, we are animals sometimes succeeding to be something else.

Destructive acts against art often show us a passion we seemed to have lost. Why did the iconoclasts, Byzantine or Reformation, want to destroy images? Why did Al Qaeda want to destroy the Buddhist statutes in Afghanistan? The iconoclasts and the Islamists saw art as a real experience – a threat people’s salvation that had to be wiped out – more than just a treasure or a monument of the past.

Even people who realize the museum needs to be reinvented have trouble getting to this core issue. The New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum of Art needs a new approach.  Few of the people asked for their opinion seem to grasp the central issue.

In the meanwhile, how should we approach a museum?

Even with only one chance to visit a museum, focus on a few pieces. There will always be art never experienced, just as there are great books never read. Miss the Mona Lisa, and relate to a few pieces on a personal, meaningful level, not as an art tourist.

Going to a museum becomes an act of introspective, contemplative spirituality. Just as if we meditated, prayed, or visited a shrine, we emerge able to see the world anew, reorient our life perspective, and perhaps even see the art around us.

2 Replies to “The Temple of Responsive Objects”

  1. This is really good, Michael. People, especially art professionals, do tend to avoid the emotional reaction. This might be purely pragmatic–they can’t make a living writing and teaching about art if feeling is the main thing–or it might be something else. In any case, I think you’re entirely right about this.

    For me personally, this has changed as I’ve grown older. I was enamored of conceptual art at 22, fully in agreement with Duchamp’s dismissal of purely “retinal” art, and very much attracted to intellectualizing. Today, though, I’m mostly interested in art that makes me feel, e.g., Motherwell. On my next museum visit, I’ll try to take your advice and focus on just a few pieces. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • Thank you.
      Art criticism was not always so intellectual. I have read part of Hector Berlioz’s music writings in À travers chants and he does not shy away from emotional reactions.

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