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  • Experience or Interpretation:"What You See Is Not What You Read"
  • Klaus Ottmann

Museums of modern and contemporary art are growing at an unprecedented rate. New museums are being founded and existing ones are expanding exhibition spaces and acquiring more and more works of art. Concurrently, cultural institutions compete with a growing number of art fairs, biennials, galleries, and public collection spaces.

Since the 1980s the focus of museums increasingly has been on education and interpretation, which among other things has created a boom for audio guides and scholarly exhibition catalogs at the expense of the unmediated experience of works of art. Perhaps what is needed are exhibitions that present art again primarily as "experience," with minimal curatorial and didactic intervention. [End Page 13]

I have borrowed the title of my essay from a lecture that was given by Nicolas Serota, the director of the Tate galleries in London, in 1996. His lecture was subtitled "The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art."

But the question of the presentation of art, and specifically, that of experience vs. interpretation, by no means originated in the last decades. It is at least as old a question as modern art itself, going as far back as the nineteenth-century French intellectual dispute on the museum between the poet Paul Valéry and the novelist Marcel Proust, as recounted with a sympathetic voice by the German philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno in a short essay with the minimalist title "Valéry Proust Museum."

There is much to be learned from reading this small text. Paul Valéry criticized the museum of his time (the Louvre) for creating confusion in the mind of the spectator by reducing the experience to the level of information only. No one would want to listen to ten orchestras at once, he argued, yet we are forced to apprehend, at the same moment, a seascape, a portrait, and a still-life, or worse, painting styles completely incompatible with each other. He warned that excess of information would lead to impoverishment of the senses, as art was becoming a matter of education. Valéry's view could be regarded as the conservative position.

Marcel Proust's view was more modernist: he regarded the museum as the best place to view art. Devoid of décor and other commonplace distractions, its galleries symbolized for him the inner spaces into which the artist withdraws to create works of art.

Both Valéry and Proust emphasized that art should be enjoyed. But while for Valéry art lost its vitality in the museum and effectively "died," Proust saw an afterlife of art in the museum and in the subjective stream of consciousness of the viewer.

For Adorno, both views were too one-sided and extreme. Valéry's absolute unwavering contemplation of pure art takes the risk of neutralization, unless the work can point beyond itself toward a social context. Thus, a work of art is neither an embodiment of a Platonic idea, as Valéry believed, nor is it exclusively a reflection of the soul, as Proust understood it. Rather, in Adorno's view, art is a "force field" between the art and the viewer, both passive and active.

In his 1931 lectures on "Art as Experience," the American philosopher John Dewey said:

The trouble with existing theories [of art] is that they start from ready-made compartmentalization, or from a conception of art that "spiritualizes" it out of connection with the objects of concrete experience. The alternative, however, to such spiritualization is not a degrading . . . materialization of works of fine art, but a conception that discloses the way in which these works idealize qualities found in common experience.1 [End Page 14]

In my book The Genius Decision: The Extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition, I describe the creative act as an active-passive leap that the artist is impelled to make and the viewer is challenged to repeat.

Wittgenstein often spoke about the inexpressible, that which is beyond the limits of language. He called it "running against the boundaries of language." It is something any poet, musician, or painter is familiar with; they all run against boundaries of language, sound, or color...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-7809
Print ISSN
0021-8510
Pages
pp. 13-17
Launched on MUSE
2007-06-02
Open Access
No
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