Wednesday 14 August 2013

All hands

A recent article in the New York Times by Judith Dobrzynski ruffled a few Twitter feathers earlier this week. Titled High Culture Goes Hands-On, the opinion piece asks whether our arts institutions, in an effort to meet the demands of an audience that increasingly thinks in terms of 'experience', are forsaking their traditional strengths and becoming more homogenous as a result.
Some of these initiatives are necessary, even good. But in the process of adapting, our cultural treasuries are multitasking too much, becoming more alike, and shedding the very characteristics that made them so special — especially art museums.
It's an interesting argument. The Sleep No More phenomena - which had museum thinkers flogging themselves to think of ways to bring the aesthetic and involvement of interactive theatre into galleries - caused me to wonder whether museums and galleries have a quiet but deep envy of their more immediately, physically affecting cousins: dance, theatre and music.

At the same time, decrying the programming of a Martin Creed work as experience-seeking - a desire to 'activate' the museum - seems a little offbeam.
In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.
The Creed work Dobrzynski focuses on - Work No. 965: Half the Air in a Given Space - is interactive, experiential. That's how the artist made it. That's how the museum is obligated to show it. Any other decision would lose integrity. And that seems to me to be where Dobrzynski goes a little off-kilter here: it is not necessary the museum approach that has changed, but the art. Sure, museums are responding to the reactions they see from audiences (who do, by and large, enjoy experiential works) but they are also responding to generations of artists who have decided to make the viewer or visitor part of the work.

Dobrzynski concludes
For decades, museums have offered social experiences — the fact that you can talk while you’re in the galleries has always given them an edge over the performing arts — and that is good. Now is the balance shifting too far to the experience? Are they losing what makes them unique? Should museums really follow the path of those “experience” businesses?
This made me think about standing in front of Duchamp's Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art earlier this year. That work needed me. It needed me to press my eyes up against that wooden door in order to make it seen. Did this make my visit any less reverential, moving, unique? No. It made it what the artist wanted it to be.

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