I’m a freak for lighthouses– maybe it’s because of the trip to a couple of North Carolina lighthouses when I was a kid or from watching one too many episodes of The Road to Avonlea. Regardless, when I heard that there was a National Lighthouse Museum located just over the harbor in Staten Island, I was ecstatic! That is, until I did a little Googling.
Turns out that although an SI organization won the title “National Lighthouse Museum” in 1998, there’s still no museum. According to Staten Island Live:
The problem is that no one has come up with the funding required to transform the 19th century buildings on the site into a museum. Everybody seems to have been waiting around for somebody else to do the heavy lifting. It was as if everyone thought merely getting the designation was enough.
The city’s Economic Development Corp., which has always seemed a reluctant partner in this enterprise, did put about $8 million into stabilizing the buildings and constructing a first-rate new pier. But the EDC has maintained, with some reason, that the job of getting the museum up and running should fall to the museum’s backers, not city government.
The board of the museum never came close to raising the $15 million needed to get the museum going. Then, a couple of years ago, the board formally dissolved in what seemed to be the death knell for the museum.
But apparently there is a new board for the organization and renewed efforts to raise the several million dollars required to turn the proposed museum into a reality. Let’s hope they do right by it and ward off the muggers. Exploring a museum dedicated to lighthouses sounds like it would be a wonderful way to spend a spring afternoon.
I spotted this gem in The Wall Street Journal’s New York Photos of the Week March 10th–March 16th with the caption:
About 30 public elementary school children compete in a chess tournament sponsored by Chess-in-the-Schools at The Cloisters Museum in New York on Sunday, March 11, 2012. The museum is currently displaying an exhibition “The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis.”
I hadn’t heard about the chess exhibition at The Cloisters but as a former high school chess geek, I know that the medieval Lewis Chessmen are some of the most famous historical game pieces (not to mention that Ron and Harry used them to play Wizard’s Chess in the first Harry Potter movie).
The pieces are thought to have been made in Norway and were probably abandoned on the Aisle of Lewis (which is near the west coast of Scotland) by a 12th century merchant. The pieces were lost until 1831 when they were unearthed with a whole trove of other objects. From the Met’s website:
The chess pieces (thereafter known as the Lewis Chessmen), which come from at least four distinct but incomplete sets, are today arguably the most famous chess pieces in the world, and are among the icons of the collections of the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The King below is obviously aghast that I haven’t visited him already.
(image via the Met’s website)
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.
Apologies for the hiatus. I’ve been hard at work on my master’s thesis, “Missing the Modern Gun: Object Ethics in Collections of Design.” It’s an exploration of museums and the way we assign a moral status to objects. I plan on posting some selections and additional research in the next fews weeks in addition to our regularly scheduled progrmming. So be on the lookout!
artdaily reports that the Design Museum is getting a new £80 million home!
I want to go to there.
Ok, Monger doesn’t mean to be totally Met-centric this week but one can’t deny the awesomeness of Sheena Wagstaff’s appointment as the new head of the 20th-21st Century Art Department. Wagstaff is currently the Chief Curator of London’s Tate Modern.
The Met has always seceded contemporary art dominance to the likes of the Tate Modern or MoMA but actions of director Thomas P. Campbell show that he is bucking the trend. Campbell recently finalized a plan to display contemporary art collections in the soon-to-be-vacated Whitney Museum building while the Met’s contemporary galleries undergo renovations and Wagstaff’s appointment indicates an ambition to increase the profile of the museum’s younger works.
The NYT quotes Campbell as saying:
“I’ve been conscious since I became director that a timely recalibration of Modern and contemporary art — not just art of the West, but globally — was something we had to do,” Mr. Campbell said in a telephone interview. “The opportunity to take over the Breuer building is very exciting. It gives us space to show Modern and contemporary art in the context of our encyclopedic collections.”