Friday, January 25, 2013

Boston Museum of Art Reflections

Here are some of thoughts having visited the Boston Museum of Art today.

1. The Spaces of the Museum: As I walked through the contemporary art wing, I have noticed how museums present art work says much about how the aesthetic experience is allocated a space to affect us. The curators let the walls remain white.

This white wall coloring is true in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, the National Gallery and the St. Louis Art Museum in their respective contemporary wings. White signifies cleanliness and purity, a neutral orientation such that any work that hangs on the wall space can be shown as it is in itself. In this way, the museum accommodates any perspective because in our time all perspectives are to be entertained, given space, and to be shared in their eminent sense. The background of white is used in photography to give the illusion of no horizon line, no definition but an indefinite world with no definition and boundary. Here, in these spaces - like photography - the white forms a background that can let the independent work come into relief. The created space that accommodates any perspective is a space that can take no direction and fulfills its function by accommodating no perspective. The space does not orientate us as other spaces. A church prepares us to feel insignificant next to the glory of God with flying buttresses or corporate buildings manifest clean lines of square glass conformity and efficient use of materials, the same efficiency that motivates the greed for profit. Neat, tidy and organized. The white space cannot be anything. It is free floating. 

Contrast the white space of any Contemporary Gallery to the historic wing at either Boston or Chicago. The European wing is dark green and a dark turquoise bordering on green. The darker colors bring out the relief of Copley's portrait of Colonial Americans, Thomas Sully's portraits and the shimmering fabrics of the aristocracy are masterfully captured in 18th century French paintings. The dark colors are not pure, but a definite color. The spaces have been decidedly lit, painted and designed. There is a decided intention of the past such as putting the past in glass containers that cut us off from our past in a different way than the free floating works of contemporary artists. The works of the past are protected from our intrusion as the white free floating pristine contemporary works. Contemporary artworks are situated in spaces that offer no historic determination. Our inability to situate contemporary works in a decided situation is exemplified with the use of white spaces. Contrary to contemporary works, the settings of historic art offer a perspective. They are situated in a room with color with a definite design, and while the art appreciator might not know what horizons of history fully determine or inform the present horizons, the presence of color signifies the presence of some definite content. 

2. The Dearth of a Perspective Embodies a Cultural Truth: With the white space on the walls, the museum respects all perspectives. This lack of a perspective might be called the result of a postmodern ethos, but I do not want to go there entirely. Instead, I only want to track the consequences of the white space walls. By creating a space open to all points of view, there is no common aesthetic field to ground our vision of what the art work is about, and also, art is given without purpose. Instead, the only thing we can say is that art resists thematization of all varieties. While art can create meaning, there is no reason for us to listen to anyone one voice. There is no privileged perspective. The white space signifies that art can be anything, and if a philosopher or critic were to assert the function or form of aesthetic experience is X, then an artist will find a way to resist such thematization. Art objects slip away from determination but he artist let alone take on a life of their own, and that life -- as you may guess -- can only be seen in the gallery with white walls. 

The embodied space of a lack of definition or boundary implies that creative artists can assert anything. Just like authors on blogs can publish anything (as I do when I finish a post here), the artist can form anything, work with any material, and intend anything. To the spectator, then, her mind need not frame or anticipate the dimensions of aesthetic experience (though Gadamer would have us believe that this is impossible). She must only be tolerant of the work, and for this reason, she does not form any sensitivity to aesthetic experience. She is only to be hermeneutically open. She must be as clean and open as the white walls,and yet openness to the possibility of art is not enough. Thus, the larger cultural problem in America presents itself, nobody is capable of experiencing the horizons of the past because life in the present requires such openness that the same sterility of the walls in the museum adorns the souls of Americans' inability to experience art. 

Now friends familiar with my Gadamerian proclivities may press that the "fusion of horizons" allows for openness and determination of the past in the form of tradition. Yet, my point is that the organization of the space in the museum's contemporary art wing is an attempt to privilege openness evinced by white walls at the expense of tradition that is pictured with designed spaces of dark walls. The pieces of the past no longer speak to us. Instead, we are illiterate about those historical horizons. We go to a museum and read the information plaques. We let the history be decided for us. The controlled intentions of the walls and the space in the museum have a conceivable effect on how we conceptualize art. 

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