Wall labels. Curatorial text. Titles (or un-titles, as the case may be). At what point do the words surrounding an artwork serve the work, and at what point do they disrupt it? This week #Hashtags wraps up Rob Mark’s “The Museum On My Mind,” a meditation on the role of museum commentary and what it means to “know” a piece of art. For refreshers, see Parts I, II, and III.
Part IV: Play is the thing
Can a museum nurture struggle, channeling it toward expression, rather than relieve struggle, channeling it toward resolution? It can, perhaps, if it acknowledges that the artwork, rather than its commentary, is the most able narrator, producing a text that both incubates and channels struggle. Can the museum tolerate an object naked of its label? It can if it is willing to recognize the visitor’s capacity to guide him or herself, to collaborate with the artwork to devise his or her own narrative. What might draw a person to an artwork stripped of its commentary? A museum that seeks to transform habitual museum behaviors into a playful struggle, and commentary into engaged community.
Resonance and Wonder
Cultural historian Stephen Greenblatt identifies two experiences—“resonance” and “wonder”—that can arise in the museum. Resonance—“the power of the displayed object […] to evoke in the viewer the complex dynamic cultural force from which it has emerged”—reflects the meaning of an object in its time and place, the making of the object and its meaning to its maker. No longer does the object fit in my hand or appear on my wall without the sense of how it might have fit in another person’s hand or hung on another person’s wall. It is equally important, however, to conceive the object’s meaning independent of its context, which is, in a sense, the meaning Greenblatt applies to wonder: “the power . . . to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, [and] to evoke exalted attention.” Wonder can tell us something too, but this something often dissolves when the museum seek to reclaims context.
To what extent is wonder a necessary condition for resonance, just as it is the necessary invitation to struggle? To what extent does wonder, itself, achieve its own sort of resonance? The museum acknowledges the social, political and art history of the object, the encrustation of the experiences that molded and patinated it. Yet it arbitrarily—if unintentionally—signals the end of that accumulation with the object’s installation in the exhibition, signing that finale with an explanatory label. Art starts as a connection beyond the artist’s self, but it—and its context—extends not only to the visitor, but to others in the visitor’s life, both in the moment and on into future. Art that inspires wonder also inspires the desire—even the demand—to share that wonder. Wonder, like resonance, also resonates. This experience, marked by the desire to share, is substantial and enduring; the nonresonant one is impermanent, even superficial. What endures is what remains dynamic—not static: insight that comes out of experience, out of a struggle to comprehend.
How to Behave in a Museum
Follow me into a typical exhibition of paintings or photographs. A large wall plaque tells the story of the exhibition, the story that motivates the curator. Hanging at eye level are the artworks, each piece equidistant from its neighbors, each attended by a small label. Some labels continue the narrative of the opening wall plaque.
A line of people hugs the walls of the gallery. Its one-way momentum is relentless, ruled by some culturally determined number of seconds in front of each piece—and each label. This community standard also impels each visitor to surrender the primary viewing space to the next visitor. Even with audio-, smartphone-, or ipod-tours, technological alternatives that might free visitors from the physical label, the experience remains linearly structured and cognitively skewed. This practice of traveling sequentially, as if on a conveyor belt wending around a gallery’s perimeter, label by label, seems to derive from the expectation—concretized over generations into unconscious visitor habit—that every one of the (many) words and every one of the (too) many objects on display is worthy of attention and necessary to the exhibition’s story.
Under these conditions, bodies become nothing but vehicles of transportation. Sensation whittles down to sight, sight whittles down to information-gathering, and information-gathering whittles down to contextualizing. All of these museum practices, habits, and regulations suggest that attention ought to be measured in seconds rather than minutes, the same sort of seconds I might spend skimming an article and glancing at its illustrations. Claustrophobia-inducing at worst, exhausting at best, the temptation to narrate plus the compulsion to inundate stifle both works and participants, refusing them the space to breathe; to feel, think, experience, and express. Resonance triumphs over resonating wonder, but both suffer for the victory. No wonder labels are known in the trade as “tombstones.”
“The first thing to do would be to take some away,” John Cage recommended. The second thing would be to re-embody the visitor, to grant visitors the license to see what they see, follow where they are drawn, happen upon what they discover, and omit what seems extraneous. To concentrate in one place for minutes, fly over vast stretches in seconds. To play.
How to Roll Wholy Over the Museum
In 1993, Cage collaborated with Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art curator Julie Lazar to create Rolywholyover A Circus, a traveling “composition” whose conditions of creation suggest alternative ways of being in a museum. For one of the composition’s four “movements,” the “museumcircle,” 21 museums within a 30-mile radius of Los Angeles submitted lists of 10 objects they would be willing to lend MOCA. Cage used chance operations to position the works selected by lenders. For another movement, the “main Circus,” which was comprised of artwork and ephemera of artists who were important to Cage, Cage and Lazar again used chance operations to position each work—including into a storage area—and determine how long it would remain in that place. Lazar notes that not every work moved every day, but in her catalog essay, she quotes Cage as exclaiming, “The basic idea . . . is that the exhibition would change so much that if you came back a second time you wouldn’t recognize it.’” By doing so, Cage offered visitors the opportunity to write their own commentary, at their own pace, in their own space.
No less carefully constructed than the conveyor belt, Rolywholyover sought to conjure attentive play rather than a focused study. More precisely, it invited focus, study, even struggle, into the playground of the exhibition by letting the visitor discover his or her own pathway and by cultivating surprise as an active force in experience.
In her essay for the Rolywholyover catalog, poet and philosopher Joan Retallack explores Cage’s conception of play, which, she says, unfolds “at the moment of any disruption of habit.” Retallack invokes the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who said: “Playing is an experience, always a creative experience.” In an exhibition, meaning materializes in the space of play, the territory between internal fantasy and external other, during which imagination “must literally take chances, playing with the concrete hypothetical, the experimental ‘what if.’” Within the protected playspace of the museum, each visitor struggles with the otherness of the artwork. But this sort of struggle is sweet, because it does not demand a particular outcome, just a satisfying one.
Cage had realized what many contemporary curators don’t (or may not): that the museum’s truest self emerges as “playground”: not as an entertainment complex or an educational establishment, but as a place where visitors dynamically engage with artwork, with other visitors, with the exhibition itself. As Retallack also suggests of a Cage poem, the museum can “[invite] a practice or reading that enacts a tolerance for ambiguity and a delight in complex possibility,” as much with the structural language of the exhibition itself, as with the literal language of the label.
Winnicott says during psychotherapy, which he defines as “two people playing together,” “the significant moment is [when] the child surprises himself or herself,” not when the therapist interprets the child’s activity, an act that results in the child’s “indoctrination” or “compliance.” Although curators do not wield the power of psychotherapists, the museum—with its art historical, aesthetic, and other contextual interpretations—risks producing such acquiescence. It wields authority both as commentator, whose disembodied words hang in parity with artworks, and as cartographer, whose mapped pathways overdetermine movement. Here, the experience of indoctrination and compliance replaces play and surprise—a “playing together” with the artworks—substituting them with the ensnarement of the visitor in, as Winnicott puts it, “the creativity of someone else.”
But the stakes are even higher. According to Winnicott, play “is always on the theoretical line between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived . . . This area of playing is not inner psychic reality. It is outside the individual.” This is much like the experience of an artwork that induces wonder, which like play, knows that it is a subjective experience that nonetheless provokes the desire to assert claims of a shared reality, of the make-believe world of play or, as aesthetic philosopher Immanuel Kant suggests, the unprovable claim of the universal truth of the subjective aesthetic judgment. This desire to claim as shared what is not shared, and to state it out loud to others, however, creates a space of possibility. It is a space in which my passionate assertion, confronted by your skepticism, opens up not only a space between us—how can it be that you don’t agree with what feels to me to be self-evident?—but also a space about us, a container for a conversation in which no conclusion can ever be either right or wrong.
What would this conversation look like, sound like, feel like? Like another sort of Rolywholyover. Not a chance-determined curation, but a crowd-determined commentary. Not a conversation with the disembodied authority of the label, but a facilitated conversation that frames the artwork as what it is (an experience) and viewership as what it is (an engagement with a community of other viewers, including curators). The product of such crowd-determined commentary is as much the crowd as it is the commentary.
Imagine the gallery at the end of an exhibition occupied by three computers and a projector, many comfortable chairs, maybe even a couple of final artworks. A museum curator sits at one computer typing. In real time, the projector flashes blocks of this extemporaneous exhibition commentary onto the wall. The curator invites visitors to read the projected commentary, engage in a conversation about the commentary or the exhibition, or use another computer to enter their own commentary, which is then projected beneath the curator’s. The curator stops composing when visitors type. Other visitors watch, chat with the commentators or each other, read a transcript of all the commentary on the third computer, or browse reference materials: the catalog and floor plan, and related books. Some visitors write comments on large post-its and stick them to the wall. The curator, overhearing conversations, might even prompt these postings, encouraging people to “solicit assent” and, in doing so, discover dissent, even friction. Freed from labels and wall plaques when they proceeded through the exhibition the first time, visitors are able to re-enter and re-visit the exhibition after having experienced the commentary in this gallery, this “incubator.” Those with an unquenchable thirst for pre-viewing commentary can visit this room first.
I am not suggesting something completely new: docents routinely encourage conversation, some museums include hardcopy or digital “guestbooks,” and others provide post-its. What I am suggesting is that the visitor and the exhibition are both best served when the commentary the visitor first encounters is not the label or the wall plaque but her or his own language, and when visitors have the opportunity to share that language with others toward the production of commentary.
Each week, the curator posts commentary summaries—including the curator’s own contribution—both on the exhibition’s web page and on the gallery wall. The museum might also compile a searchable, downloadable PDF of the proceedings, including all the comments and an overview of the process, prefacing it with a synthesis of some of the more compelling ideas. But the value of the undertaking is not in this document. Rather, it is in a structure that separates the experience from the language about the experience. It is in a space where this language is not only found but also made. It is, last, about a collaboration between artwork-in-action and the lives of engaged visitors.
John Cage once asked the composer Virgil Thomson “Which solution I should choose?” for a “quandary” he faced. Cage said Thomson replied, “We define ourselves . . . by making our own decisions.” The choices we make are unique; they tell us—as much as they tell others—who we are. They are us. This, it would seem to me, is the enterprise that museums should prioritize: the building of selves. Not only selves constructed using the knowledge of art historical or political or social context, but selves that emerge from the process of choosing, engaging, interpreting, and interacting. Selves that emerge from wonder first, then resonance, and arriving finally at a resonating wonder.
If, as I said many Parts ago, the museum is both the kindest and the cruelest parent, it can also be Winnicott’s “responsible person.” It is the invisible force that protects the playspace but avoids entering into the play, the caregiver that does not instill compliance but nurtures the resilience to engage in the productive struggle with uncertainty, with ambiguity, with play. In fact, the role of protector of the space is consistent with the traditional role of curators as guardians of their collections. The problem is not the curator, whose collection-building, caretaking, and interpretive functions are crucial, but the incursion of commentary—wall plaque and label—into the space of engagement.
“If you work with chance operations,” Cage said, you are shifting “from the responsibility to choose . . . to the responsibility to ask.” The enormous responsibility of the museum, then, is less to convey visitors along a single pathway of a pre-determined narrative than to create a playspace shot through with infinite and complex lines of flight along which we might propel by choice, toward that tentative state we call selfhood.
Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and its effect on self and society. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and in visual and critical studies from the California College of Art. Marks recently won the Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research for his essay, “The Site of Imaginative Contention.”
Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine, Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 42.
 Sculptures array themselves using a three-dimensional version of this arrangement and narrative method.
If it is not a busy day, it would seem that there would be plenty of opportunity to stand or sit, view and review, converse. Museum practice seems nonetheless to discourage such activity, almost out of habit. I was recently reprimanded—in two museums—for leaning against a wall or sitting in the corner of a gallery. This was ironic since, in both cases, the galleries were hosting visiting exhibitions (their walls would soon be repainted) and since there were no other people in either of the galleries who might have been inhibited or endangered by my presence on the floor. The threat of lawsuits might preclude sitting on the floor, but it should not preclude benches, of which there were also none. If not explicitly, lingering is at least implicitly forbidden for all the but hardiest visitor.
Joan Retallack, ed. Musicage: Cage Muses on Words Art Music. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press and University Press of New England, 1996), 142.
 “The museumcircle” also used chance operations to mix in rocks, plants, shelves with reference books, and tables with chessboards.
Julie Lazar, “nothingtoseeness,” Rolywholyover A Circus (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), and personal communication with Ms. Lazar, December 2012.
Joan Retallack, “Uncaged Words,” in The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 223. Essay commissioned by Julie Lazar, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, for the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Rolywholyover A Circus (Rizzoli: New York, 1993).
Retallack, “Uncaged Words,” 233.
Retallack, “Poethics of a Complex Realism,” in The Poethical Wager, 220. Retallack defines Winnicott’s terms: “Fantasy is the passive, self-enclosed mode nursed by nostalgically, tidily manipulative forms. Imagination is an active reaching out to the energy and consequence in the order/mess/order of the real world.”
Entertainment and play are easily confused, but it is notable that “entertain” derives from the Old French for “to hold together,” which might be interpreted as an attempt to keep in one place. “Entertainment” becomes a code for attracting and keeping visitors and patrons. The kind of play I am talking about is more dynamic and unpredictable.
Retallack, “Uncaged Words,” 221.
Winnicott, Play and Reality (New York: Routledge, 1997), 38.
Retallack, “Uncaged Words,” 233.
Retallack, “Wager as Essay,” in The Poethical Wager, 53. To achieve surprise is simple if one is playing. But the standard approach to visual experience, in particular art appreciation is prepare to understand. If there is a preparation for a museum, it should be, rather, prepare to be stunned. Of course, stunning usually happens only when preparation fails. But the instruction, “prepare to be stunned,” disarms me of my own need to perceive the world as comprehensible. In the end, the words will come, informed as much by the spontaneity of my engagement as any pre-digested compliance-inducing interpretation.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000). According to Kant, when I experience an artwork as powerful, I am emboldened to make a universal claim that it will be powerful for you, too, even though I know I have no objective criterion to demonstrate the universal truth of my experience.
The danger of crowd sourcing, of course, is that the average of all ideas is an average idea. A few years ago, someone surveyed a whole bunch of people in order to derive an ideal aesthetic in art. The survey found that the “best” art would be something like a horse in a field with a rainbow. Hmmm.
Such projects—perhaps the museum would ultimately create a library of community-produced commentary—would comprise a great opportunity for interns, not so much in the curator’s active role, but being present at and a part of the conversation, compiling and organizing comments, perhaps with the help of software that could discern and index entries by key concepts.
Retallack, Musicage, 199.
Retallack, Musicage, 139.