Back at the Mirror Museum

Middle-aged docent for scale.

About a month ago Kara and I were in Columbus, and we decided to go to the Columbus Museum of Art (I should say I decided, but it was my birthday). Toward the end of our walkabout, we sat down in front of Frank Stella’s La vecchia dell’orto, a sort of three-dimensional piece about 13’x15′, all aluminum and fiberglass and canvas. A real monstrosity in my opinion, but that’s where the chairs were.

We had just sat down when a member of the museum staff came up and started dumping what looked like puzzle pieces on the coffee table in front of us. Upon closer inspection, they were small cardboard cutouts representing the different components of the artwork hanging on the wall, ready to be assembled by the viewer into whatever configuration might best fit their own artistic fancy. As she explained the process, I recalled seeing similar stations around the museum, some in front of even less scramble-able works of art.

This fascinated me, so I struck up a conversation with the staff member.
“When you look at a piece of art like this,” I asked, “what questions do you ask?” She said she asks questions like, “how does this make me feel?” and “does this remind me of anything?” and so on. Nothing about what the work of art means, or intends to convey, or what the artist intended in the creation of the piece, all questions I was asking.

I think together this all points to a difference between perhaps a modernist and a postmodernist, and it all comes down to the question “where is the meaning located in this work?” For the postmodernist (my conversation partner), meaning is located in the self. Art isn’t intended to give me something I didn’t have when I walked in; its purpose is to be the catalyst for the rearrangement of my own thoughts and emotions. I walk out changed, but ultimately not by anything outside of myself. That’s why the little tray full of dismembered pieces of the artwork makes sense. A trip to the art museum is in some way a journey of self-discovery. How would I arrange this art? What does this mean to me? These are the important questions. The work in front of me becomes nothing more than a vehicle for my own self-realization, and the art becomes assimilated into my own story– think of the relatively new phenomena of selfie-taking at museums (and then read this hilarious report).

It’s the conical bits what really get me.

For a modernist, on the other hand, the answer to the question “where is the meaning located in this work?” is that it is located in the work itself, as an act of communication from artist to viewer. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to ask “what does this mean?” Art is something which communicates, on a fundamental level. There are still questions, of course, as to what it communicates, and to be sure, the artist doesn’t have the only say in what is communicated by his or her art (the theme of a gallery in which a piece is placed can have an enormous effect on how it is interpreted), but art is ultimately a message in which an idea, feeling, or sensation is communicated. And as such, I, the viewer, may come to a piece of art and have something imparted to me, something I did not walk in with. Art exists outside the viewer and communicates into his or her context. It is still assimilated, but only in the way that all experiences and propositions are assimilated into a person’s life. This is still something outside of myself.

The point is this: the postmodernist can never actually learn or grow when they visit an art museum. That’s the not the point. The point, for a post-modernist, is to use art to help them explore the endless permutations of self which already exist inside them. Art is a mirror, in which the viewer sees only him or herself. I can’t imagine this experience holding any thrills. But how much better if art really does exist outside of ourselves, a work which challenges or expands our own views of the world, which inspires us, which simultaneously comforts and confronts us in our common humanness!

The solution to bad art (art which communicates poorly or which attempts not to communicate at all) and bad art viewing (viewing which believes meaning begins and ends in the viewer) is good Christian art-making and good Christian art-viewing, of course. And we can only communicate well, truly, beautifully, if we, as a people, deep down, have something to communicate.

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