by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin

Before thinking about the question of how to look at art in museums we should say a few things about the art museum as a public institution itself. It was only since the eighteenth century that the idea of a separate building dedicated to the public display of paintings, sculptures and other “artistically made” artifacts became a commonly accepted phenomenon in most Western societies. This means that, when we visit any major gallery of art, such as the National Gallery in London or Washington, a large part of the collection will consist of objects which, before that time, would never have been considered primarily as objects of aesthetic contemplation but served as devotional objects or as military devices or as domestic utensils for aristocratic households. So when visiting a museum it is important to consider the object’s original role and context. Was the work at all meant for us to be looked at in a museum or did it have a more integral role in society. The answer to this question may affect our perception and appreciation of the object.

One of the earliest reasons for the establishments of museums was to show off the nation’s great art and thus install a sense of national identity and pride— the Louvre in Paris, for instance, turned from being a palace for the kings into a Museum of the Republic after the Revolution. More recently, the museum’s role is considered to educate and improve people. Most of the major American museums founded in the mid-nineteenth century are based on the assumption that art is good for people, that it is morally beneficial and spiritually uplifting. This assumption is still in place. Even though the art itself might be immoral, subversive or plainly obscure, the continuing underlying expectation is that looking at art is morally edifying and should be widely promoted. In view of that, it is important to try and trace a museum’s intention for their displays. By what criteria are these works selected and not others? Are these the only works considered representative of our nation’s history?

Being increasingly aware of these questions the Art Gallery of Ontario, for instance, has recently made dramatic changes to its display of historic Canadian art by including a strong presence of Aboriginal works, not in a separate display but integrated in the same space so as to reflect the original historic co-existence of and complex relationships between the art of the First Nations and European colonists. Similar questions can be asked with respect to contemporary shows: what, for instance, were the London Royal Academy’s reasons for showing Saatchi and Saatchi’s controversial Sensations show, later also traveling to New York? Was it a sense of moral duty to show contemporary “Brit” art? Was it meant as entertainment considering the shock-value some of these works elicited? Was it to increase the museum’s image from stale and stuffy to cool—or its income? Before visiting any museum or special exhibition, whether the above or a Renoir sell-out, it may be helpful to reflect on this, if only to become more aware of our own expectations.

Once we have asked these questions we can turn to the works as such. I have often found it helpful to distinguish between three dimensions or levels in art, none of which can however be taken in separation from the other. The first level is that of the “aesthetic surface.” Before even looking at what a work may represent or mean we are confronted with a material, physical object of a particular size, in a certain kind of material, with a variety of forms and shapes in a range of different colors and textures. All these aspects convey something to us—is it small or vast, intimate or overbearing, are the colors warm or cool, subtle or garish, are the shapes rounded or angular, is the texture smooth or brittle? Just thinking about the adjectives used, we realize that we use the same kind of words for people: a person can be smooth or brittle, subtle or garish, warm or cool, etc. This indicates that we have some kind of understanding of what such formal aspects of a work may want to convey to us even if, in the art being viewed, it is meant to work against the grain of our usual expectations.

At the second level, we may want to see whether there are recognizable representations within the work. In most pre-modernist art this is almost always the case. So then we must ask the question, how does this particular subject matter—a woman, for example or a landscape—relate to the formal aspects considered above. Does the way in which this subject is represented tell us something about the artist’s approach to this subject? What did the artist see when he looked at this woman or scene? This situation changes, of course, when looking at modern abstract or, say, postmodern installation art: because we cannot hold on to something familiar we immediately recognize, we have to shift our expectations and consider whether there may be other ways in which the work refers to some particular object or event, i.e., by means of symbolic references or, more abstractly, by means of its particular choice of forms and colors. Such art often does not refer to a particular concrete situation or event but to a more abstract mood or disposition— greed, alienation, fragmentation etc. Looking at art this way requires some practice and patience. It also demands a high level of engagement of our imagination. But in the end, this can also be highly rewarding, sometimes even more rewarding than the other way of looking.

Finally, it is important to look at what can variously be called the work’s “life-perspective” or “worldview.” By this I do not necessarily mean the conscious statement or message an artist may want to install in his work, although this is of course part of it. Instead, it is the more subtle, often implicit sub-conscious tone or “body-language” of the work which gives us some indication of the artist’s perspective on life. This does not necessarily coincide with the what of the subject-matter—portrayals of beauty and happiness or ugliness and vice—it all depends on the how. That is, we must ask ourselves the question whether what is being conveyed is being treated not only with the right respect but also, if necessary, with the right indignation. In other words: is the work able to recognize and celebrate the good in this world and lament and decry its brokenness? Or has it confused these values and thereby thwarted these discernments?

Taken together, these questions hopefully give the reader some clues for how to look at art when visiting a museum. I hope you enjoy your visit. AJ

Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin (Ph.D., Free University) is Professor of philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, Canada. She is coauthor of the book Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts (InterVarsity).