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Letter to the Editor: There's no right way to experience museums

BY ELEANOR DUMOUCHEL

Published January 25, 2012

I would like to respond to what I thought was an extremely condescending and acutely insulting article by Lauren Caserta, “Context adds an extra dimension to experiencing art,” on Jan. 23. The article paints her readership of Michigan students as a bunch of philistines who need to be led up the steps of a museum or auditorium by the nose. Of course context changes the way a work of art is perceived and understood. Tomes have been written and paintings have been painted since the 17th century that throw into question the very accuracy of perception, a viewing context in itself. At the Paris Salon, paintings that were thought inferior were placed way up high so that they touched the ceiling, and the superstars placed at eye-level.

Furthermore, Caserta ignores the 20th century efforts made by artists like Allan Sekula, who in the series “Aerospace Folktales” created viewing spaces complete with potted ferns and recorded audio that added meaning and therefore dismantled slightly the framed photographs from their seemingly exalted position. Instead, I think that Caserta sides with the arbiters of the Salon in defending the institutional right of museums in shaping our viewing experience, and that she is all too impressed by the ritual and formalities of experiencing culture that these authorities dictate. Did the author of this article ever stop to think that art is not limited to the high art that is finally selected to be in these highly exclusive arenas? And what is to say about artists who consciously reject such settings, such as sound-artist Max Neuhaus's needle-in-a-haystack “Times Square” sound, literally a low-pitched sound which occupies a carefully sonically delineated space near a subway exit in Times Square? When Caserta sees a group of people huddled around something, does she immediately follow the “social prompts” that “[provide] the cues that tell you you’re looking at something that’s meant to be meaningful?” Didn’t the Dadaists kill the idea of “meaning to be meaningful” with automatism? Or with this statement has Caserta brushed off their contribution to art history completely?

Caserta makes me believe that we go to museums as some kind of bourgeois obligation, in search of something to say at the next dinner party, or to experience a commodity — “even the day-long museum pass you paid for makes you feel as though you're looking at something special.” Furthermore, the white walls, the “Hey! I'm in a museum!”vibe as bearing on the meaning of a work, is only applicable to the last 100 or so years of art making and falls into what Robert Smithson called ‘the secular ambush of art.’ Before, say, the titanium backdrop for early modernist works at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, works of art were NOT intended to be placed in such deliberately hollow and context-LESS vacuums. Malevich emphasizes this distinction himself when he displayed (originally, and not the way Caserta described) “Black Square” for the first time in 1915 in the corner of a ceiling, the place traditionally reserved in the home for Christian idols, and thereby nullifying it. But the dogmas of the past are only replaced by new ones. The leaders of the French Revolution founded the Louvre as a museum in 1793 so that they could hold on to all the sumptuous art objects they confiscated from churches and at the same time quarantine these sacred objects in a meaningless void: the museum as we know it today.

Folk art does not become art when a curator plucks a weathervane off of a barn and puts it in a museum. It was a piece of art with a story and a meaning and a purpose all the while. I would like to read Caserta’s article and be excited about a work of art in a way that would naturally incline her reader to make the trek out to the museum and consume the exhibition from the bottom up. However, what we have here is a prescription for the correct way to experience art and that, I strongly believe, is entirely up to the individual. And if you just think that museums are so novel and amazing, then you need to get out more.

Eleanor Dumouchel, LSA senior.