Encountering Art


In Chicago for the weekend. Went to the Art Institute (like you do). Enjoyed it as always but thought (again) that it is a rather exhausting affair, both physically and mentally.

Physically, it is rather tiring to walk around such a relatively large building (a series of buildings, really), fighting through crowds of other visitors, going up and down stairs, sitting down, getting up, looking around. Mentally, it is impossible to enjoy such a great variety of things without almost immediately giving up paying attention and just beginning to scan everything with a minimum amount of attention required to register the difference between “this one here” and “that one over there”…

Encountering objects not made for museum (most of the content seen today, except for things from the past century or so) is easier as one may imagine how they were used in “real life.” However, looking at objects made for this sort of experience, one cannot help but wonder whether they have any value in and of themselves, outside of the crowded halls of major museums where they are┬ávaluable┬ásimply because they hang on walls and stand in middles of rooms?

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11 thoughts on “Encountering Art

  1. i can tell you my experience of art and music and the like improved a lot when i started just taking things in in bite-sized chunks. look at one painting or one exhibit, then leave. walk out of a movie if it’s dumb. leave in the middle of a concert if i’m not taking it in. not practical under all circumstances, but a great technique to have available.

  2. Hi Mikhail,
    You raise a great question. In fact there is a very well-developed conversation around it already, which generally goes under the name of “autonomy.” As you know, museums are a modern phenomenon and early collecting in many cases involved ripping ritual artifacts from their original contexts and museumizing them (whether reliquary statues from the Congo or European altarpieces). This was worrying people (including Goethe) already in the 18th century and the whole practice of collecting in the “salvage” mode has been critiqued more recently with the help of insights derived from postcolonialism (Clifford). From this latter perspective, museumization is an exercise in racism and empire, since only Europeans can properly “value” and preserve the objects of “primitive” culture. Thus, these kinds of objects’ “value” is artificial. On the other hand, defenders of automony (such as Adorno) claim that the value of these works is precisely in their capacity to enact or embody a critique of what exists, and through this negativity, to sustain a (weakly) utopian posture. Their functionlessness and impotence critiques the violence of utilitarian thinking, that subordinates means to ends (Zweck). For Adorno, who was super suspicious of anything like propaganda or advertising, the negative freedom represented by works is purchased at the price of their social efficacy, and so autonomy is not something to be fetishized. Rather, its social content (unfreedom) must be drawn out, hence his interest in avant-garde dissonance.
    The multi-generational criticism leveled against the sterile and church-like “white cube” gallery from land art, conceptual art, performance art, feminism, relational aesthetics, graffiti and street art, interactive art, dialogical art, institutional critique and some installation (I’d say Hirschorn’s trash aesthetic and maybe Lozano-Hemmer’s technologized social spaces) etc. puts pressure on Adorno’s position. Increasingly, quadrilateral flat things hanging on walls are seen as impotent, at best, and at worst, politically compromised. Likewise with objects on plinths. Some of the most interesting work, like Michael Asher’s removal of the wall between gallery and administrative/office space, poses serious questions that museums like AIC and MoMA – built as they are on the modernist ideal of the pure, autonomous white cube – have failed to answer.

    • Thanks, Alex. What would I read on the “museumization” and such matters? Sounds like this is a very interesting topic indeed. I suppose on a very general (surface) level I am asking a rather stupid question: what is the use of the objects of art in museums? Obviously these objects are all chosen (and I do think those rooms with ancient artifacts are certainly weirdly racist or at the very least suspicious) for my attention – but what is it about them that I should note and appreciate?

      Uselessness as capacity to enact critique – this is also an interesting angle…

  3. Think of how impressive a museum would be if you didn’t have large, color picture books and magazines, tv, movies, etc. It would be quite an experience. I was reading the autobiography of Raymond Aron, and he mentions spending many hours at the Louvre as a student. Hard to imagine somebody saying the same about a museum today.

    • True. Imagine listening to live music without having access to recorded music (which is everywhere) – imagine reading scores and playing it “in your head” and then coming in contact with the live orchestra. I think it’s sort of the same, isn’t it?

  4. I have a similar experience in concert halls and art galleries. My expectations get so built up by the setting and the general display that I’m always underwhelmed by the thing I came to see, and generally overwhelmed by everything else that is going on around me.

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