Joy in a gallery

What should be the mood of a museum visit? Is it like going on a picnic, to school, on a shopping trip, or to church? –Cynthia Freeland.

There’s a difference between English and US English here- she’s asking about what we would call an “art gallery”, a special space for looking at Art. My first thought was, it should be like a garden, where I move, relaxed, with beautiful and sometimes unexpected things catching my attention. And it should have good cake. What do you think?

An art gallery should enrich and expand our understanding of what it means to be human, the glory, jest and riddle of the world. It should have something to delight, intrigue, confound, provoke, enlighten anyone wandering in- any child, any person who has never seen art before, any connoisseur.

So it should be welcoming, to everyone. No-one should feel excluded. Any faint lingering traces of the idea that this is for educated people, for people with good taste, rather than for everyone should be expunged. It should be enticing. There should be eye-catching things round every corner, to draw you through. It should be mindblowing. We might have our understanding of the world completely changed.

I hope it could overcome resistance. There is resistance- “That’s not Art!” imagines that Art means technical skill in painting and sculpture, the ability to make a face look like a face in a photograph, rather than the ability to make a face that a person can read and feel with. There is fear, that these connoisseurs are looking at things I will not understand. Well, possibly- an understanding of the meaning of the colours in certain icons, or the symbols used to indicate saints- Peter carries keys, for example- can enrich viewing such paintings. Arguably, truly great painters have produced something new, and lesser artists copied their betters, and so some sense of the development of Art has value, but progress is not linear. Instead it is an expansion, in many dimensions, with people finding new possibilities and their idiosyncratic way, or revisiting the old and finding something new in it.

It should be a place we escape words. Words mediate our experience of the world, and come between us and the thing in front of us. You do not see what is around you because you are thinking. Words move through your mind, and you pay attention to them instead, even if they are the same words as flowed through you yesterday and last month. I love to escape words. It is an experience I know and value. There must be a wordless experience before there can be new words or new understanding. So I enter an art gallery with the intention of relating to some art object- probably many- and allowing it to communicate to me, without judging, or at least permit my mind to see possibilities in it without seeking to define them.

The child or adult entering a gallery for the first time needs a certain level of trust in the guide taking them there, or the society which values the gallery, to be open to such experience. So the gallery should do all it can to win such trust. Not understanding is OK- but the viewer must perceive the possibility of understanding, and a route to understanding, without too strict an idea of what understanding might look like.

I have strong memories of art in my teens grabbing my attention and engaging me. Then I saw that there was something that would repay my attention. Now delight is quotidian for me, enraptured by the flowers in a Burne-Jones forest, but also perception, being brought face to face with a man standing over his wife, just killed in war.

Go to a gallery! They are wonderful places!

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