This is my first blog post. I decided to start writing a blog (I realise ten years too late) on the back of writing my thesis for my MFA. Between that and lockdowns, I have enjoyed working through my thoughts in a more methodical way, so I felt that a blog could continue that. It seems to sort through my endless content absorption quite nicely.
A couple of days ago, I had written a long meandering first blog post about a few unrelated yet connected pieces of media I had consumed that week. But it was too long. I couldn’t finish it, and I thought that this is not what I want to be doing. I need to be able to sit down, get it out and finish it one go. I was overcomplicating blogging.
So here it is, the first post, maybe not the last but probably still way too long.
Last week, I was listening to Xavier Salomon, deputy director and chief curator of the Frick, speak with The Art Newspaper’s podcast The Week in Art. The Frick is temporarily moving their collection to the Breuer Building on the upper East Side, not far from their permanent home in the Frick mansion. I wasn’t very familiar with the Breuer Building, at least not by that name. It was always the Whitney to me when I lived in New York, and when the Whitney moved, it became the Met Breuer for a time for which I completely missed out on having moved away from New York in 2006. I used to work at the Frick Collection, by the way. I mention this, mainly, for context but also, because I was drawn to the Art Newspaper’s podcast specifically for the feature on the Frick’s temporary move.
So over the course of The Art Newspaper interview, Salomon mentions that the art in their collection (basically what’s thought of as masterworks – Bellinis, Van Dycks, Gainsboroghs, Goyas, Pieros, Turners, Vermeers, Whistlers and so on) was not made for white walls. They were not made for gallery spaces like the Breuer Building. I find this really interesting. I’m an artist myself in the final year of my MFA in painting, so when I heard Salomon’s comment about the works’ presentation, I thought, “Yes! That’s it. This means something to me.” The Frick artworks live in the Frick Mansion. We come to a Duccio as a part of the enamels room, as a part of the mansion and a larger collection, rather than a wing in a museum presented as a part of an art historical timeline.
This inhabiting spirit of the Collection, it turns out, was the dilemma and opportunity for Salomon and the Frick. Housing their collection in the Breuer Building let them present the artworks with a new perspective. This included the furniture and ceramics and sculptures. They took pieces that belonged to a house in a seemingly domestic way and transformed them into objects in the context of a museum. As to not completely shock the visitor experience, they did make the decision to paint the walls a neutral but rich grey, which judging by the press images, works extremely well. Salomon points out that it also helped show off the frames that within the mansion had a tendency to blend in.
The Breuer Building presentation now allows the visitors to see the objects that were once camouflaged in domesticity. I remember working at the Frick and passing Boucher’s like they were wallpaper, uncertain if I should pay more attention to wallpaper or less attention to Rococo art. But in this temporary move, all of the artworks get to be contextualised within art history and out from under the context of the Frick mansion. I quite like it, temporarily. It gives the Frick visitor fresh eyes; however, the works will always have a much richer context and life, at least in my opinion, in the Frick mansion. It is there that you are more likely to discover artworks magically rather than through academic guidance or museum instruction.
This brings me to my second media encounter last week that sort played upon these ideas posed by Salomon’s interview. I was listening to a philosophy podcast The New Thinkery, and in this particular episode a Skidmore College professor was on discussing Walker Percy’s essay The Loss of the Creature. I only sort of half listen to these things, but my attention was piqued when they made an art museum comparison to the idea of discovery and authentic experiences. Percy’s essay, written in 1954, talks about touring the Grand Canyon and the authentic experience of it. The tourist did not just happen upon the natural wonder, but was guided there. It’s a philosophy podcast, so there’s a great deal of abstract dissection of things that usually go unquestioned like, “What is discovery?” As a postgraduate student myself, philosophical criticality is de riguer, most popular being post-modernism, and the most commonly referenced strain being “decolonising the canon.”
The podcast idea of authenticity sort of parallels the idea of decolonization, but doesn’t possess post-modern solutions. The podcast points out, very interestingly, that even the presentation of a curriculum at university is a lens for which can stunt a student’s discovery of a piece of work and therefore stunt its value or authentic understanding. That’s what I took it to mean. I’ve only listened to the podcast and not yet read the aforementioned essay by Percy. Probably should. This, in and of itself, reinforces the philosophical discussion around authentic discovery. I’ve already been prejudiced to the essay by listening to the podcast. I haven’t come to it without the lens of the podcast presenters.
They point out that there seems to be very little direct encounter with art and literature before the introduction, say, by a museum, a publisher’s introductory note or a professor’s analysis etc., which can eliminate “discovery” for the visitor, the reader or the student. Taking a particular class or module in college is a prejudicing lens through which the student can be guided before they’ve even encountered the original piece of art. The podcast used the example of seeing a painting in a museum, which is finally why I’m mentioning this podcast episode. It links directly to the Frick at the Breuer Building. Like Salomon pointing out the white walls of the gallery space, The New Thinkery host says, “Has anyone ever been blown away by a piece of art in a museum? Seems like a museum is designed to crush any instinct towards beauty…You wander through and sometimes you are given a headset that tells you the dates of the painter and these are people pushing you and you know you’re supposed to think it’s awesome and beautiful, and it’s sort of not obvious to you why.”
This isn’t necessarily true across the board. It’s a philosophical debate. I’ve had some wonderful moments in museums. I mean, my entire adult career has been spent working in them, but the joyous experiences that I have had have often been less about the artwork in a museum and more about the space and the museum mediation. The only exception to this was seeing Rothko at the Whitney when I was in high school. It was as real a discovery as one could have in a museum. I knew nothing about Abstract Expressionism or Rothko himself. Had never seen a reproduction in a book. I probably didn’t know anything about the Whitney before that museum visit. What strikes me looking back on this exhibition, funnily enough, is how the Rothkos inhabited the space. They were so big. All you saw were Rothkos. They were the space.
And here we are at my third media connection from the week. In an Art in America article Buying Time by Rob Horning written in June 2020, Horning addresses the idea of immersive art mediation. Usually hearing the word immersive, or thinking about what it means in the context of art, I automatically associate it with churches and sensory activation. The Walters Art Museum put on an exhibition and catalogue called A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe in 2016 all about this. Is it any wonder that we hear the idea repeated that museums are the new churches of the middle classes? Sunday strolls to IMMA instead of Mass? The medieval church was an expert in the field of immersive art.
But I digress. Basically, the article pits philosophical views against each other about what art is and how we consume art in a space. This is why I think I stopped writing my first version of this blog post. Philosophical conversations about aesthetics versus dematerialization can take all of the enjoyment out of the art. These sorts of debates can be too overwhelming, especially if I want to write about them, yet the questioning of the experience of art does directly connect to the previous ideas brought up in regard to the Frick walls and the Walker Percy essay on authenticity and discovery. In the Art in America article, Horning presents the idea that museums are turning to immersive art mediation and experiences that play upon the dematerialisation of art and therefore enabling a greater engagement with a wider audience. This presupposes a lot though about visitors and their desires to engage in the first place. Horning says,
…[Art] could produce a subjective experience of immersion, which could replace the frame as the quality that made something art. Rather than a hermetic object, art itself could become infrastructural, a facilitating environment, and an entirely different range of encounters could be considered as aesthetic occasions. The sort of experience they provoked could be understood as a dematerialized aesthetic object, unfolding directly in the viewer’s mind, with immersiveness anchoring the possibility for art conceived on the largest of scales.
This dematerialisation philosophised about in the sixties (think performance art) and addressed by Horning in the article was pursued as something good because it could not be commodified. At least that’s the way I take it. Now, dematerialization in mediation is actively being commodified. I mean look at NFTs or any kind of App purchase, but I won’t even go there. I don’t have the bandwidth for it. Horning says,
Consumerism compels conviction too, in a far more familiar way than, say, late-modernist stripe paintings. It convinces through the social act of exchange. When “experience” is mediated and commodified and can be paid for, it becomes “real.” With the advent of phones, the mediatization and commercialization of experience is always available; the sorts of social relations [Michael] Fried wanted to fend off with art are at our fingertips. Any moment can become immersive, at any point we can scan a feed, initiate a “situation.” Feeds are immersive like the turnpike’s endless expanses [explored by Tony Smith]: they approximate that sense of opportunity and mobility and the ever encroaching future, all that the road promised before we realised it was taking us to nowhere in particular.
When I step back from the article, it sort of depresses me in the sense that in order to reach a wider audience, museums must make experiences. They think that populations are only capable of immersive engagement and that the traditional presentation has some sort of elitism and exclusion. Again a sort of post-modern address of art historical colonization. They assume that it was just the mediation that kept people out of the museum and that people saw the presentation as inaccessible. That may be true, but we do not know that. There may be a problem trying to be solved that isn’t there and, in turn, the work may be devalued in its presentation. The mediation may actually stand in the way of the experience between viewer and art. We may as well be walking around with VR devices on our heads. I guess we practically do. No more being in the driver’s seat. This feels like a dumbing down. There is no discovery here or thinking for oneself. This is what Walker Percy posed as being guided, and negatively so, on steroids.
It would seem that even though museums presented works in a traditional sense that are curated along with curated information – that decisions were being made about what you discover and learn – everything that the museum hadn’t presented was still there to be discovered in the piece of art. Interpretation was still available to the viewer, because they are still standing in front of the object as it was made by the artist. Who knows. It could go either way. This is where the thread of art presentation sort of peters out for me. I don’t think that immersive mediation is bad. As I said before, it’s a bit like medieval churches appealing to all of your senses, however, immersion is not necessary to make the art accessible. The need for immersion assumes that everyone wants to understand but is incapable without that mediation.
This blog post isn’t exhaustive, even if it is long, but it does address something that needs to be contemplated. How we engage with the world around us and how we are guided, to know what we are looking at and what we are consuming, to be conscious of how we got there and what we think before we are told what we should think, to make sure that we bring ourselves to the world, rather than getting lost in the immersion.