Mediation of the active gaze

The Artist in His Museum (detail)

Charles Wilson Peale, detail of The Artist in His Museum (1822, Wikimedia Commons)

In “Civic Seeing,” Bennett quotes McClellan’s Inventing the Louvre: “Theoretically one, the museum public was divided by degrees of visual competence.”

I found this interesting not simply because of the impact of the Enlightenment, French Revolution, class, and nineteenth century paternalism on the construction of art and education, but because it pinged on the writings of early Church Fathers discussed by Bloch in Medieval Misogyny. There is no such thing as a passive gaze; to be seen alters the object seen, as well as the viewer. Bennett’s specific examples are Modern, but underpinned by ancient bones.

Small wonder that mediation was considered a requirement: that would serve the good of the collection (exposed to the gaze of the unwashed masses) as well as the unwashed masses (as yet untutored in the proper appreciation of art). And yet, I am torn in my emotional reaction. I see (and disapprove of) many of the forces behind this decision…and yet I have a healthy respect for expert knowledge (whatever the subject happens to be).

I am reminded of one of my parents’ stories about their honeymoon. In Italy, they happened to meet a vacationing teacher of art history who provided background and anecdotes about the artwork they viewed one afternoon. This museum experience, too, was mediated…but not by the institution. It was a crowd-sourced value-add, the offspring of the pre-Enlightenment old-boys-club and the post-Enlightenment educational program: one member of a reasonably well-educated middle class discussing his area of expertise with two other members of the middle class. Institutional mediation will occur, to one degree or another, and that is not necessarily a bad thing; nor does it mean that museum-goers should feel obligated to pre-educate themselves before daring to gaze upon artwork. But I am pleased that opportunities for spontaneous interaction exist among a diverse museum-going public and that (per Witcomb) digital tools are making it technically easier and generating excitement and acceptance (albeit not without their own problematic aspects, particularly the digital divide).

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Weekly readings: what is a museum?

Bennett traces the history of Modern Western museums, with particular emphasis upon the way in which Enlightenment thinking transformed them from clubhouses wherein elites conversed about art and into hierarchical educational institutions that sought to improve the lower classes. “Visual competence” was required to properly consume art.

The ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg reveals an institution which places much emphasis upon material culture and documented facts. The hierarchical museum model is very much in evidence behind the scenes (interpreters primed, via training materials, to produce a certain type of interpretation) as well as in public-facing programming.

Gordon points out that “museum” has a broader meaning than the pillared institutions that leap to mind (and are the focus of most studies). She explores smaller exhibits, curated for diverse reasons. If Bennett focused on top-down trends, Gordon is very much in the bottom-up camp. The “visual competence” of sports bar patrons is a non-issue, not least because the informal setting is rarely parsed as an exhibit space.

Witcomb explicitly ties her work to Bennett’s, but views governmental deployment of museums as economic as well as cultural: their focus upon material objects encourages visitors to embrace capitalism. It’s a disconcerting thought, targeting cultural assumptions that can easily go unnoticed. Even more radical is her discussion of museums’ information-dissemination superseding the physical repository function in the digital age. That would be a truly revolutionary change…except insofar as it would create a new marginalized class in need of education, refinement, and saving. “Digital competence,” rather than “visual competence,” would divide the museum-going public.