Flash Points

Come Curious: The Artists Look

Karin Sander, "Wallpiece," 2010, MASS MoCA installation view. Photo by Arthur Evans.

“When I was sixteen and knew nothing about art, I sat through almost six hours of Andy Warhol’s Empire. I did not understand it but thought: this is in a major museum, it must be important, what is going on here? I stayed until the museum closed. His Screen Test films are some of my favorite works made this century, but you need to give them back the time they took to be made.” – Uta Barth

In the first part of my contribution to the Flash Points series on “Art and Experience” I asked a selection of artists included in the exhibition InVisible: Art at the Edge of Perception – a show about empty spaces, sensory limits, boundaries of perception – how they hope viewers experience their art. Curious whether their answers mirrored their artistic practices of not only making but also looking at art, for part two of my post, I asked the artists – Uta Barth, Christian Capurro, Joanne Lefrak, and Janet Passehl – how they experience art themselves.

There are several books published on art and perception, from philosophical, art historical, educational, psychoanalytical, and medical perspectives (among others, I am sure). To name just a few, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote extensively on the nature of perception, theorist and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim published Art and Visual Perception in 1954, and John Dewey delivered lectures on aesthetics in the 1930s, subsequently publishing Art as Experience. In a 1976 essay titled “Art as a Cultural System,” anthropologist Clifford Geertz points to the problem of word versus image, observing that the experience of art is difficult, maybe even impossible, to accurately put into words: “The excess of what we have seen, or imagine we have, over the stammerings we can manage to get out concerning it is so vast that our words seem hollow.”  On the other hand, he states that “the perception of something important in either particular works or in the arts generally moves people to talk (and write) about them incessantly.” This is undoubtedly true –curators write lengthy catalogue essays; scholars analyze and theorize, regularly coming up with new -isms; critics opine about the latest exhibitions; artists compose statements; students write papers and dissertations; and in the age of Twitter and Flickr, a time where there seems to be an increasing desire to share our experiences – both mundane and profound – blogs are devoted to the subject.

It can be difficult to wade through the judgments of others in order to form our own. Joanne Lefrak quotes James Elkins from his examination of art and experience in The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing: “Every field of vision is clotted with sexuality, desire, convention, anxiety, and boredom, and nothing is available for full leisurely inspection.” Lefrak says that while factors such as curatorial decisions and installation influence how one experiences art, our changing perceptions – framed by the past and yet in constant flux in the present – alter and shape the experience as well. “I could look at one piece of work in the same space, presented the same exact way, at different points in my life and I could have a completely different experience depending on how I am feeling and what I have learned since the last time I saw the same piece.”

Barth also refers to the written word – Lawrence Weschler’s biography of Robert Irwin, aptly titled Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. A Zen text long before it was the title of an artist’s biography, this is what Barth aims for in her work, as she says, “…over and over, yet each time in a different way.” But is this even possible? Can we really stand naked before a work of art (metaphorically speaking of course), a veritable tabula rasa? Janet Passehl’s response to the question of how she experiences art touches on this exactly:

I always feel a little bit awkward when I begin to look at art, no matter what kind of space it’s in, public, private, indoors, outdoors, because it’s impossible not to see in my mind’s eye myself looking at art. It’s difficult to stand naturally before a work of art, because viewing is such a self-conscious act. I try to leave myself behind, and try to see the art as if I have no baggage, which is nearly impossible but helps me to be fair.

The idea of being fair raises the question of our responsibilities as viewers. Are we obligated (or should we be) to spend a certain number of minutes in front of each work of art we encounter? Do we have to sit through all six hours of Warhol’s Empire in order to be fair to the work and the viewing experience? Passehl admits that, “My first impulse upon seeing work that doesn’t look like the kind I’m interested in is to move along quickly, so when this happens I often force myself to slow down and approach the work with a willingness to engage with it.” Though for Barth the ideal way in which viewers experience her art is “slowly, quietly, alone and over time,” she is also honest about her own path through the museum, confessing that “As a viewer, I am often guilty as the next person when it comes to walking through galleries at a fast pace. Something needs to stop me in my tracks and that is usually something I don’t easily understand; something slow and silent, something that reveals itself with time.”

Pointing to issues that arise with museum design and display (a topic that is complex but one that I only have space to briefly touch upon here), Barth says that,

Galleries are often problematic spaces with crossed agendas and museums are guilty of following their mistakes. When shows are crowded with so many different works, it is hard to isolate and engage with anything. The environment plays a huge part in how I am able to access a work… If there is too much I just get lost, overwhelmed, and disoriented, and only engage with one or two artist’s works. A curatorial idea is not served by quantity in the museum. I like to see art that is singular and isolated so I can truly experience it, not a stamp collection of similar things.

To end, in response to the question, “How do you experience art?” Christian Capurro says, “As if it matters. And matters in ways not easily found elsewhere, nor reconciled there.” Indeed, the experiences we have with art are not easily found elsewhere, and maybe this is precisely what makes them so difficult to express, but what compels us to continue to do so anyway. How does Capurro experience art? “With curiosity and questions. Maybe too purposefully at times. Certainly, and often, too hopefully.”


  1. Ty Clever says:

    Thank you, Katia, for this rich, thoughtful post. You lay bare the contradictory impulses many of us feel when we’re confronted with a work of art: we sense that what we say will inevitably be partial, inadequate, yet there’s almost a compulsion (institutional? psychological?) to say something.

    This reminds me of what William Hazlitt had to say about Shakespeare’s King Lear: “We wish that we could pass this play over, and say nothing about it. All that we can say must fall far short of the subject; or even of what we ourselves conceive of it. To attempt to give a description of the play itself or of its effect upon the mind, is mere impertinence: yet we must say something.”

    The image at the top of your article points to a fear that seems to inform this struggle–the fear that, ultimately, anything we say about a work may be nothing more than a reflection of ourselves, a sort of confession.

    Anyway, thank you for this. And thanks for the many new additions to my “to read” list–I’m especially looking forward to the Geertz essay!

    Reply

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