January 4th, 2009

OK, Michael, my natural history example doesn’t weaken the case against museums of art hiding their collections. The balance between research and exhibition has to be different for art and natural history in all museums, not just the smaller ones I highlighted. (Thread history: Michael, Mark, me.)

In a natural history museum, the dinosaurs and whales are more interesting to the public than the minerals and beetles. That’s a fact about us the public, not about the collections, and doesn’t affect the research work. But the point of art is to be seen. There’s a particular abdication and welfare loss in hiding art in cellars rather than lending it out or (shock, vapours, faint) even selling it. There are a few special cases like drawings and cave paintings where exhibition is destructive, and conservation has to come first.

What’s less appreciated is the implication for the research mission of art museums: it should include the visitors.

The intellectual problem of art is aesthetics: what makes art work? Art historians specialise in only half of the question, how artists (say painters) generate their effects with composition, colour, brushwork, and subject-matter. The other half, the viewer’s response, is left to the judgement of the connoisseur. (The artists themselves don’t make the same mistake. Long before conceptual artists like Carl André of the white bricks and a much cleverer museum shop miniature of the Winged Victory he’d spray-painted powder blue, artists were playing mind games with the spectator: Piero della Francesca’s double vanishing point, Holbein’s anamorphed skull, Velazquez’ and Van Eyck’s play with mirrors.)

In the hands of experts like Kenneth Clark and Simon Schama (clever parody here) the connoisseur approach can be very enlightening. It’s highly élitist, but that’s less of a problem than its subjective and unscientific nature. Following Schama’s excellent BBC series The Power of Art, I found myself agreeing with him on Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa (“the finest depiction of the female orgasm in the whole of Western art”). I couldn’t quite share his enthusiasm for Picasso’s Guernica, whose reputation is I fear boosted by the belief that because of its subject it ought to be a great painting. Though it is undeniably powerful. In the programme, Schama goes to the UN press centre that has a tapestry reproduction of Guernica. When Colin Powell gave a press conference after his lying WMD presentation to the UN Security Council, it was rescheduled to another room. Even in a copy, Picasso’s work still had the power to shame.

You are of course better off following the guidance of a highly trained eye like Schama’s than that of an amateur like me, as long as you listen to your own sensibility too. But it’s unsatisfactory to leave it at that: just follow the authorities. Can we go further? Is there a scientific aesthetics that advances on Aristotle’s groundwork on mimesis and catharsis? You won’t I fancy get much help from psychoanalysis, which tries to explain (or in Lacan’s case confuse) in terms of discredited concepts, or cultural studies, which doesn’t accept Aristotle’s question (what makes art tick?) as the problem. Few traditional experimental psychologists of the rat-in-maze type seem to have been interested; Daniel Berlyne was an exception and SFIK left no school. The ev.psych. revolution has changed things and prompted good work on experimental aesthetics and universals. I was impressed by their explanation for the attraction of pastoral.

Ev.psych. tends to be long on attractive explanations – just-so stories – and short on hard data. We need a discipline of behavioural aesthetics. That’s where museums should come in. It you want to catch large study populations of homo sapiens responding to art, museums are ideal laboratories. They should be packed with motion sensors, eye trackers, visit counters, and attractive graduate students with clipboards. Even the Scottish National Gallery can put its embarrassing doggie picture to good use: how differently do visitors look at it than at Leonardo’s fine drawing of dog paws?

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