The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Capitalism, Museums, and Common Life

Art as Experience
By John Dewey (1934)

The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life.”
This fact (if it is one) interests me because it’s a paradox. On the one hand, museums enable the general public access to great works of art that used to be exclusively housed in private palaces and mansions away from public view. On the other hand, museums also put a wall between the art and the general public by keeping it out of our common surroundings. This art lives apart from us and we're allowed to visit it under strictly enforced conditions: Look, but don’t touch. Look, but react in a constrained way. Look, but not for too long.

This leads me to speculate about how I would behave if the great art which I most cherish existed in my private home. Of course, for this daydream to work my home would have to be a palace because there are so many grand works, like the “David” and Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, that would be included in my collection.

Let’s imagine that I own this art and the palace, and that no one but me and a select few have access. How would I act after everyone had gone home or off to bed? Hmm… just art and me. First, I’d probably touch all the work. Most likely, I’d do this because touching something intensifies the sensory experience. Viewing without touching isn’t satisfying enough. If the art is a sculpture, I’d probably sit or lay down on it so that my entire body could feel the contours of the work. And, I’d probably stay there a long time in order to “become one” with the piece and the sculptor who made it.

If the work is a painting, then I’d probably touch the surface of it and feel the ridges created by large daubs of paint, and the rhythms of the brushwork. This is beginning to sound like a sexual experience, and in a way it is. I’m connecting emotionally and physically with a work of art.
And, since no one else is in the room, I could act out my emotions: sing, dance, howl, cry. Yes, I would be a complete fool for art.

By contrast, when I go to a museum I’m very reserved. My emotions are present but hidden. It’s a rather unsatisfying experience, actually. Adoring something or someone from afar is frustrating. But it's better to have viewed with constraint then never to have viewed at all.

Taking this a step further, I think it would be a worthy goal as an artist to produce work that someone else would want to act the fool over; work that would inspire someone else to dance, sing, leap, or cry in the privacy of their own home.

How about you? And, what works would be in your private collection?


Linda Roth said...

You'd have to fight me for the David,(I did get close up and touched his big toe)--also the Slaves still caught in the granite in that same gallery in Florence. Then Pollack's drips, of course and Van Gogh's Little Room and, and and...
I love the museum. As soon as I walk in the door I feel at home, part of the family. I know where all my favorites are and say hello every time I go. I am not quiet. I laugh and giggle a lot, I'm so happy to be there. I talk to other viewers--and they talk back. And dangerous as it may be, I lean in close to see the strokes and smell the paint. I could be the figure in Rockwell's painting leaning over to get a closer look. But I don't touch. We have a little burro in the museum whose patina was worn thin by the thousands, millions who have petted him since he joined our collections decades ago. No one's allowed to pet anymore. He's a beloved sculpture we wish to keep.
The art museum is a sacred place to me and the major recipient of my philanthropy.

Casey Klahn said...

What a funny post! Thought provoking and mad, all at the same time. Your fantasy exhibit reminds me of two things from popular culture.

One: there is a Dos Exuis beer ad with the most fascinating man in the world. One of the (several hundred) one liners about him is that, "in museums, he is allowed to touch the art."

The other was a TV show from the 70s or 80s called Airwolf (very man-oriented show) and Jan Michael Vincent lives in a log mansion in the Rockies, but he has van Goghs and such hanging on the stairway.

In some ways, the value of a painting is like an armature allowing us to respect it; esteem it and desire to look harder at it. Perhaps it is the clothing om a desirable other - you want them more.

I want some Michelangelo sculptures - Moses, I think. Also, some Bernini's, please.

Drawings by Ingres. A room full of drawings, by Vincent, Matisse, Leonardo. Paintings by Andrew Wyeth, Matisse, Pissaro, Vincent van Gogh.

A room for Rothko.

Paintings by Wolf Kahn and- don't be surprised - Cartwright.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I'd be happy with a Brancusi or a Hepworth; I guess I'll always like the feel of sculpture--and a large Bacon painting. When I've been close to great works, I felt exactly as you describe--I wanted to sing, dance, howl and cry. I also join Linda in happy giggling and laughing at museums--absolute joy.

Anonymous said...

I think I would like a Cezanne card player, and Picasso's painting with the blue enamel pan, (and, lets see, how about 147 Picasso's in my garage?). I'd have to have a Goya, El Greco, Bottecelli, deVinci, Miro, Munch, vanGogh and a sculpture by Henri Laurens and Calder...
I have seen paintings that bring tears to my eye. I went and saw the Picasso exhibit at the museum in Seattle. It was exhausting trying to see the pieces. I was moved; I would have loved to see them for a long time by myself.

-Don said...

I'd want Franz Marc's "Fate of the Animals" and Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror". I saw the latter at the MOMA a few years ago and actually teared up. Any sculpture by Michelangelo would be wonderful - but I'd really love to have "la Pieta" to enjoy daily...

I love the image you painted with words of you dancing around with your artwork. Now that you're thoroughly inspired, put your clothes back on and get back to the studio...


Robin said...

I wouldn't mind touching one of Monet's water lily paintings that are large enough to cover the space of a room wall. Cezanne landscape paintings also capture me and I would want to talk to him, that would be part of my fantasy. and Van Gogh, the energy in his brush strokes. Touching is key.

Unknown said...

Hi LW - OK, the gloves are off!! Just kidding. I spent time in Florence admiring the "Captives" while waiting to get to the "David." We'll have to fight over those, too, I guess :-)

Hi Casey - I totally forgot about "Air Wolf!" And, I didn't remember that he owned those paintings. I did notice the commerical, however - a hoot! Yes, I'm surprised that a Cartwright would be in your collection. Must be an Isabelle Cartwright ;-)

Hi Hallie - good choices!

Hi Peggy - why am I not surprised that your collection would be heavily weighted with cubism? (smile)

Hi Don - more good choices! OK, my clothes are back on, but backwards :-)

Hi Robin - amen!


Mark Sheeky said...

"...My emotions are present but hidden. It’s a rather unsatisfying experience, actually. Adoring something or someone from afar is frustrating. But it's better to have viewed with constraint then never to have viewed at all..."

Yep that's my sex life haha. I've been thinking about this for 24 hours and have decided I'd not really want any work of art, except maybe something technically well done to learn from; a Kit Williams painting or a Voytek Nowakowski perhaps.

Carolyn Abrams said...

my most favored paintings are the ones i have because i have been able to get to know the artist as well and that means more to me than masters works from long ago that i never knew. i guess i'm a simple soul with no imagination!! :)
one of my favorites seems to be of cracked eggshells!

Celeste Bergin said...

I'm a big Wayne Thiebaud fan. I'll take anything by him....oh and anything Picasso.