Finding the balance


Museums must be ready for all kinds of responses from all kinds of visitors.

I remember reading an observation by Soren Kierkegaard in which he compared a music critic to a music lover. A critic, he wrote, perceives music analytically; the art lover perceives it emotionally. How this difference affects the way professionals deal with art is the subject of this post.

Art historians are concerned with the analytical: dates, provenance, movements in art and where a particular artist or work fits or does not, and so on. Facts and figures are the backbone on which an understanding of art rests. The “what” questions always come first. Any museum catalog stands or falls on its data, and so curators are primarily historians.

The gallery has more of a commercial focus, so catalogs, when there are any, are often slimmer in size and content. Wall texts and labels are minimal, even absent. The history of the art – especially contemporary art – is almost beside the point.

Museums have a second rank of contributors to an exhibition’s supporting material: educators. While educators are a conduit through which facts and figures are conveyed to the audience, they also provide a moderating influence. Response to works of art can vary wildly, but some sort of emotional reaction is inevitable. Telling a story in an engaging way without compromising the facts is a delicate balancing act. Docents and educators must aim for a middle ground that is neither lecture nor sappy romance (in all senses of the term).

This is why I found Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book “Art as Therapy” so very wrong-headed. You can read part one of my two-part analysis here. They proposed an approach that was all about emotional self-analysis on the part of the audience, abandoning the artist’s intentions and any semblance of art history, and substituting mushy self-help jargon. And that’s enough about that. Read the review.

Art critics have to be historians at heart, but critics overlaid with deep feeling. Our emotional responses to art shape our tastes in ways that no amount of scholarship will ever do. Some writers, such as John Berger (here I am writing about him again) leant heavily on the emotive power of artworks. Others rely on the formal properties: does this composition work? What about the choice of colors? The moral/sexual/cultural politics of the work? It might seem easy to just look at art and write about what you see, but it’s not. The critic may have it easy in that they don’t have to assemble the show; they can play Monday morning quarterback to their heart’s content. But critics, more than just about any other, bear the burden of looking at art the way we, everyday folks, do. An expert opinion designed for a mass audience, aficionados to newcomers.

I saw some lovely art today, watercolors by an artist named Ian Newbury. He doesn’t have a website, but if you’re interested, Google him or look on Facebook for Ian Newbury Watercolors. I decided not to write about him, not because his work was bad – not at all – but because he works within traditions of landscape painting that have been written about for ages. I would have nothing to say that wasn’t repetitive or trite. Especially fine were a suite of brown ink drawings commissioned by poet David Madden for his book “Sprung from the Soil,” a collection of poems about Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts. I realized that, as a critic, I had nothing to say beyond that I liked them. So a potential review ends up as a paragraph. I repeat: I liked them.

Ian Newbury’s landscapes can be seen at the Hoxie Gallery, located in the Westerly Memorial Library, Westerly RI, until the mid-August, 2017.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s