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Museums as art-lite

October 27, 2011

Do art museums really foster understanding of art?  I wonder.

If you’ve ever bought a CD or music download from Amazon, you know that Amazon offers 30-second snippets of recordings to sample before downloading.  Imagine listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that way – each of the four movements probably has its own track, so our hypothetical user would finish sampling it in two minutes.

Similarly, if you’ve used the “look-inside” feature at Amazon, you know that a user can read a few pages from a book to see if she want to buy it or not.  Imagine reading War and Peace that way – since Amazon limits the number of “look-inside” pages a user can display, our hypothetical user would finish sampling it in just a few minutes

Now, we probably would not claim that our hypothetical user had really experienced Beethoven’s Ninth (which usually requires 70+ minutes) or War and Peace (which usually requires 20+ hours).  Sure, she may have picked up a slight understanding of the symphony or novel,  but she had not really experienced it, and we would consider this inadequate.

But somehow, we tolerate analogous conditions when we visit an art museum.  We rush through the museum, as if we were riding a bicycle.  There may be a several hundred or even more than a thousand paintings on display at a large museum, but we think it is reasonable to “finish” the museum in a few hours.  How did we get to this point?  Sure, we may have picked up a slight understanding of some paintings, but we have not really experienced it, and we should consider this inadequate.


I thought about this while reading twin sets published by Tianjin People’s Fine Arts Publishing House in 2008 on the 清明上河圖 – The Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival scrollsthe “Mona Lisa” of China.  Each book set features a bilingual beautifully illustrated volume explaining the artworks, and then a reproduction of the scroll that folds out.  The first book set covers the original Song-dynasty version painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) in the (Beijing) Palace Museum, the second book set covers on the Qing-dynasty version (1737) held by (Taipei) National Palace museum.   And the reproductions of the scrolls are beautiful – the Song-dynasty scroll is reproduced at 100% size and the Qing-dynasty scroll (which is quite a bit larger) is reproduced at about 80% size.


Because of the fragility of these pieces, they are only sometimes on display.  When they are on display you can count a half-day wait to see them.  Wait periods of 4 hours in line to see them are not uncommon.When you finally get to the front of the line, you’ll only be pushed along in a crush of people.  Worse, the works are long and skinny (the Soon-dynasty version is 10 inches by 17 feet; the Qing-dynasty version is 12 inches by 37 feet) and it is all about the detail.  (The Qing-dynasty version is so detailed that it took five artists to complete). 


The scrolls are quite important because they feature unusually accurate depictions of day-to-day lives in for people of a broad variety of social classes, ages, and occupations in the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties.  It has long been recognized as a primary source for understanding Chinese history (see, for example, Valerie Hansen’s essay.)  More than 4000 individuals are depicted in the Qing-dynasty scroll – this is not a work that can be appreciated in a minute or two – it demands a full day or more of study. 


The volumes I was re-reading today, it seems to me, brought me far closer to the scrolls than actually viewing them.  (For online glimpses of the scrolls, look here or here or here.)

Now, you may think this is an extreme case – but I claim that it is extreme only in degree, not in type.  I would argue that for a broad variety of art museum exhibitions, reading a well-produced catalogue can be superior to visiting the actual exhibition itself.

So what exactly is happening at the museum?  I do not think it is art appreciation.  Instead it may serve different functions:

  • A social function (going to the museum with friends, or to meet people, etc.)
  • For personal satisfaction (knowing that one has seen a famous artwork with one’s own eyes.)
  • Bragging rights
  • To hope to catch an aspect of the work, even though one can’t hope to be impressed by all or even most of the aspects associated with the work.

Now clearly, there many times when a catalogue just will not do – after all, no matter how good the photography and printing is, it never exactly matches the color of the original, and three dimensional aspects of art (thing about van Gogh’s brush strokes) are lost (although one of my favorite art books in my personal library, Harry Garner and the Asia Society’s amazing four volume Chinese Art in Three Dimensional Colour uses 180 ViewMaster reels to present a three dimensional view of artwork – you can get a two dimensional partial glimpse here.)  Detail is lost in a reproduction – and so is the sense of awe one gets from large works (certainly, seeing a picture of the Giza pyramids hardly compares to seeing them in person.)

But it seems to me that modern museums are so focused on crowd management that often their education mission takes second place.  And I must confess – as a regular museum-goer – that many has been the time that I reviewed a catalogue of an exhibition that I saw – and I found myself wondering if I had actually seen the piece in person or not.  The demands of seeing a hundred pieces or more (for example, in a large, crowded exhibition) in an hour and a half strained my memory, and it was only when I reviewed the catalogue that I actually found myself actually integrating and understanding what was going on in the exhibition.

(This is an ongoing post in a series on simulacra versus originals – see here for an earlier post)


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