Art + Museums, What Is It For?Posted: March 17, 2012
The other day, pop-philosopher Alain de Botton wrote a piece for the Huffington Post with the rather unwieldy title “Why Our Museums Of Art Have Failed Us And What They Might Learn From Religions.” In it, de Botton argues that museums alienate the public from modern art by insisting on phenomenological aesthetic experiences and ambiguous interpretations. But according to de Botton, religion uses art differently and more effectively. He writes:
“Christianity … never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution (i.e. Titian). Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: “Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like.” “Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage.” “Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar.” The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself as a piece of art. Instead of refuting instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.”
Um. ok. So Mr. de Botton wants museums to act more like churches and because some have a pedagogical tradition that leaves room for multiple interpretations, he says that they’ve “failed” us. I disagree. I would guess that most museums strive to accommodate a range of educational and aesthetic experiences for a range of audiences. Some are more effective than others.
But de Botton gives museum audiences little credit for finding their own in-roads to art. I do not believe that museums should teach an over-simplified and one-dimensional interpretation of its collection, the approach of “this specific work of art expresses this specific human emotion” lauded by de Botton.
Rather, museums should provide visitors with the tools to craft their own opinions and associations. In his article, de Botton cites the lack of purposeful interpretation of Rothko paintings, asking, “Would it ruin a Rothko to highlight for an audience the function that Rothko himself declared that he hoped his art would have: that of allowing the viewer a moment of communion around an echo of the suffering of our species?”
No, Mr. de Botton, it would not. But when I see a Rothko, (especially this one at MoMA) I more often feel uplifted and enraptured by the vibrations of color than I contemplate human suffering. Does that mean my experience is wrong? Does that mean the MoMA should or should not tell us what Rothko intended?
Modern artists intentionally left room for subjective interpretation of their art. Rothko could just as easily have painted a scene of torture and crucifixion to evoke human empathy. But he did not. He created space for mental contemplation that extends beyond the what and into the why.
Art is just as much about trusting and accessing one’s inner life and intuitive response as it is learning about histories and styles. There is no right answer to art. There are only different modes of interpretation. I think that rather than acting more like churches, museums should aspire to become more like philosophical schools, outfitting visitors with the knowledge and curiosity to question as well as trust in their own reasoning and subjective experience. Finding artistic meaning outside of dogma and accepted tradition is just as valid as learning the intended story.