The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Anna Mary Robertson, a.k.a. "Grandma Moses"

Art Without Compromise, by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, section 4: "Pilgrimage"

Not that long ago I wrote of my annual pilgrimage to the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to see one particular Sargeant painting. I've been making that pilgrimage since 1965, although I did miss several years along the way. In this section of her book, Richmond describes how her efforts to see one particular work of art in an inconvenient location impacted her. Then, she compares the impact of that pilgrimage to visiting "blockbuster" traveling exhibitions that are intended to maximize attendance. In her opinion, these blockbuster events are purposefully designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize attendance, and are therefore, starved of intellectual and cultural nourishment.

Richmond telescopes this idea to include the malnourished content delivered by the mass media in general. She concludes that this approach "is at the expense of risk, originality, and complexity." Circling back to the pilgrimage she made to view a single work of art, the author stresses the importance of her effort in creating a stronger connection to the art, and in providing her with intellectual and cultural nourishment.

I'll add that Richmond is actually writing about "depth" vs. "breadth" in our exposure to art. By concentrating on a single piece, one spends more time observing and understanding it. This allows one to relate to the piece and to a better understanding of the artist's decision-making process. Additionally, this approach leaves an indelible impression that one can feast upon throughout a lifetime.

But, depth and breadth are a wedded couple, in my opinion. I think it's important to experience both so that we may understand the broad range of possibilities as well as the specifics. I don't believe that blockbuster events necessarily lack intellectual and cultural nourishment. I've been to many and have marvelled at the wide range of approaches to a single theme. These exhibits inform me and expand my imagination.

What's your opinion?


M said...

I have little to add to your well constructed opinion. My case is a little different because of my location on an island. We don't just get in a car and flit off for a day or two! My chance for revisiting is usually in commercial galleries or in our one lone public institution (which does have interesting exhibitions). While I revisit work online and in books it's not the same thing. I do however find that reading books about specific artists and their work does help in this area. I like what I learn from "visiting artists' heads".

I am very lucky in my travelling experiences and I've visited some of the major museums in the world thus adding to my breadth. I am a better artist from this because I have an understanding of what's possible and referring back to another topic covered , where my work is situated in that vast array of historical and contemporary art history.

Stan Kurth said...

Funny thing, on my pilgrimage to the Phoenix Art Museum a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to view a "Grandma Moses" painting in their permanent collection. When I pointed it out to my 14 year old daughter she sort of shrugged and said, "looks like a kid painted it". I felt like saying, "Hey this is the queen of American Folk Naive", but I refrained and viewed the painting for a while. Because I can't be on a constant pilgrimage I too indulge the mass portrayal of watered down culture, but interject occasional pilgrimages to satisfy what Wendy refers to as "provide the missing nutrients for a healthy cultural diet". A couple times a month I will drive through the Arizona Sate University Campus and one of the delights is a viewing of Grady Gammage Auditorium (Frank Loyd Wright) as I drive along Mill Avenue. Or even better, now and then I partake of an event inside the auditorium. Saw an excellent performance of "The Lion King" a few years back. Just like my drive to paint, I have to have a healthy cultural diet.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

First of all, I agree with the need for both breadth and depth -- I think that is a good way of approaching education. But I also disagree with Richmond's characterization of mass market exhibitions or media as utterly lacking in intellectual and cultural nourishment. I have been to a number of "blockbuster" traveling exhibitions and felt that I left broadened and enriched by the experience. I'm sure one can find examples of impoverished exhibitions and mass media, but I would be unwilling to paint the entire mass media with such a broad brush. Indeed, I'm not sure what the standards have to be for there to be *sufficient* intellectual and cultural nourishment.

I also think that it is possible to learn and grow even from an impoverished exhibit. There might be a particular moment or a particular piece that inspires the viewer. It might be the first time they have been able to see a particular medium being used, or their first experience of a particular color combination. It might just be inspiring to be in the presence of the works. Even if the work is not very good, it might open up possibilities for a viewer who didn't know such work was possible or who can use a critical eye to see how the work could be improved.

Of course, I do believe that we should provide rich intellectual and cultural nourishment. But even when that nourishment is thin, there might still be something there to feed our souls.

Mark Sheeky said...

Interesting post and comments. There's more to an artwork than itself, the context in which it was painted and circumstances in which it's seen are part of it, so perhaps a big media art event can actually make art better.

It seems that most people don't understand art, but everyone knows a pretty thing when they see it. The exhibitions at the Tate Modern are very popular despite being very cold and conceptual. If anything they are the opposite of what one might expect to be "mass media art" because the weird but popular art there is often quite bad - at the expense of more conservative but better art!

hw (hallie) farber said...

I now live in a rural area--the closest museum is 75 miles away. These blockbuster exhibitions appeal to my friends and to me; sometimes we attend the member-only openings and get food along with our culture. We've enjoyed Matisse, Rodin, Monet, etc.--didn't realize these exhibits were geared to the "lowest common denominator."

When I lived in the D.C. area I could study pieces in depth; now I go for breadth. I think every exposure to art is a learning experience; unfortunately, some people never get that opportunity.

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - Island life fascinates me. Although I've spent time on islands all over the world, I've never become a resident of one. Thanks for sharing your unique perspective.

Hi Stan - what a remarkable coincidence! I just picked Grandma Moses "out of the hat." It seems like you have plenty of opportunities for cultural nourishment and take advantage of them. I haven't seen "The Lion King," but it's on my list.

Hi Deborah - I completely agree with you and feel that everything we sense and encounter is a learning opportunity. Thanks for stating it so well.

Hi Mark - it's true that everyone knows what they like and "beautiful" is always more popular, deservedly or not. Each museum has a different mission, and I enjoy some more than others. Thanks for your thoughts on that.

Hi Hallie - How true!!

Stan Kurth said...

I'd like to say something else: I am an art addict. I don't care if it is on the internet, in magazines, books or any other media. I have to have it! I spend many hours looking at and reading about art! I know that there are many pilgrimages that I would like to make, but for all sorts of reasons I'm not going to make them all, but I can every now and then, go out and see the real thing. I include all sorts of exhibitions and stage events as such; probably some that Wendy wouldn't. Print media and web media are really not even close to being the real thing, but they're pretty good junk food when you're hungry.

Dan Kent said...

This last month I had the privilege to go to a traveling Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art. I had seen the collection in Massachusetts as a youngster and it made a great impression on me. It was wonderful to see a large group of paintings again. This was the last day of the show and it was packed with people. Nevertheless, it was an immensely rewarding experience. I can and did benefit from "breadth", despite the fact that nearly all of the author's complaints were in play. Unfortunately, there is no painting that I know of near me that I so highly regard that I would repeatedly study it in "depth". Frankly, her position seems rather elitist to me.

-Don said...

I honestly don't understand Wendy's position in this conversation. Personally, I just love art... ANY opportunity to get in front of someone else's work is food for my soul. I prefer to see work without having to deal with huge crowds - who wouldn't. But to say these larger events are geared to the lowest common denominator is an insult to everyone who looked forward to and attended the event. I agree with Dan's elitist comparison on this one...

When I went to the MOMA for the first time I was on a pilgrimage to see one particular piece. But, I didn't spend my whole adventure in front of that one piece. I studied every piece I could in the 5 hours I had allocated - with a good chunk of time set aside for my "pilgrimage" piece. I consider that a balanced meal with plenty of meat and vegetables with the most wonderful desert I could imagine. (Sorry... had to expand on Stan's wonderful metaphor)

Every museum I attend is like that, though. I research their collection and choose a few choice morsels to savor. But, I snack on everything else within reach while I'm there.

Depth and Breadth. I need 'em both.


Unknown said...

Hi Stan - I understand and share your passion for art. And, I agree that everything informs; why edit so much??

Hi Dan - I live not to far from the Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts and have visited it, so I can certainly identify with what you mean. And, I, too, think that Richmond's notion was elitist; perhaps that has changed.

Hi Don - Amen! I couldn't agree more.

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Greetings Katharine,

Blockbuster exhibits are necessary for economic reasons and they do provide a service for the community.

Yet I also understand the point the author makes but then we artists will travel distance just to see one artwork. I traveled to see a collection of photographs by the late Irving Penn just a couple of months ago and would do the same for a special painting. But that is because I would have had an interest in the painting or as I did in the photographs.

On the other hand I have also traveled great distance to see a blockbuster exhibit, which also had two paintings I was most interested in seeing.

Because I am an artist I cannot look at art the way most people look at art. My mind has a list of questions it wants answers to, like a detective trying to solve a crime.

So when I see a blockbuster exhibit, I feel I need to go back several more times because there are pieces I now wish to examine closer. Yet for someone else, such an exhibit is no more than an introduction and an appreciation of art, all in general and broad terms.

Forgive me for not being around more often. My laptop is broken down.

Warmest regards,

Unknown said...

Hi Egmont- you raise an important point. For artists, viewing an exhibit is a different experience. We're always problem solving and displayed art gives us the opportunity to look for solutions as well as appreciate the efforts of another artist. Thank you for explaining your viewpoint, and I hope your computer is soon repaired!