Art museums are natural laboratories where the ability to see with our eyes, our minds, and our hearts can be cultivated. Works of art issue invitations to each of us to step into the skin of others and see the world through their eyes. Art asks us to reflect upon our lives and the lives of others; to understand, accept, and even delight in the vagaries and frailties of the human condition.
It is both the challenge and privilege of those working close to art to introduce others to it in such a manner that they can recognize, contemplate, and respond to art’s invitations.
Typically, when designing a tour’s theme, we look to the objects on exhibit – – their styles, subjects, makers, country of origin, or time period. In this article, we would like to suggest a different approach to theme selection — looking to the audience.
Art Appreciation: Seeing Through the Eyes of Others
Caring for and about others requires more than sympathy, concern, and compassion. It requires that we possess “inside knowledge” of others — the kind of knowledge about others received by allowing their realities to temporarily become our own. Philosopher-educator Nel Noddings terms this phenomenon that is so central to caring relationships as “feeling with” another.
Feeling with another facilitates caring in two ways. First it enables a person to care from a knowledgeable perspective. Understanding another’s perspective can provide invaluable guidance to anyone seeking to respond appropriately and helpfully to expressions of need, fear, or hope. Secondly, feeling with others motivates, indeed compels, us to reach out in caring ways to others. Noddings notes, “When we see the other’s reality as a possibility for us, we must act to eliminate the intolerable, to reduce the pain, to feel the need, to actualize the dream.”
Though a few rare individuals are naturally receptive to others and seem to apprehend their perspectives, most of us must develop our “feeling with” capacities to do this. The discipline involved in consciously attending to different views, suspending ourselves long enough to allow another’s reality to become our own, can certainly be developed within museums. Indeed, art, by its very nature, begs us to enter another’s world and to see through another’s eyes. Those privileged to guide visitors through museums introducing them to both art and artists, can, through their words and attitudes, encourage the development of an open and receptive spirit.
Related Gallery Activities
If visitors and docents are to “feel with” each other and with the makers of art, discussions about works must reach the underlying perspective that was a part of a work’s production. The following are some empathy-building gallery activities that reinforce this “audience-based” tour theme.
Choose a work of art that is likely to evoke divergent responses among visitors. After gathering a variety, ask participants to defend responses or opinions about the work different from their own. This can be accomplished as an oral or written activity, individually or in groups. This strategy, which many of us remember from debate class, asks visitors to “feel with” those holding an opposing viewpoint.
Another activity, one that works well in a diverse exhibition, uses artists’ quotations or biographical information. Prior to touring, prepare cards with an artist’s name on one side and that artist’s profile (one or two paragraphs about the artist’s life or experiences) on the other. Pass out the cards to individuals or groups and ask participants to match their artist profile with the work of art they believe that artist created. Urge the participants to make their choice based on “feeling with” the artist. It is not so important that participants make correct matches as they develop good reasons for their selections and demonstrate an understanding of the emotional content of a work.
Art Appreciation: Looking Within
Not only does art have the potential to enhance our understanding of others. It also can, and should, encourage greater knowledge and acceptance of ourselves. This, too, is vital if we are to participate in caring, supportive relationships, for the respect we offer others is, in a very real sense, inextricably linked to our own self respect. In his book. Loving, Erich Fromm makes this point nicely, noting “My own self must be as much an object of my love as another person. The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love.”
Exposure to art may not, in and of itself, encourage love of self. It can, however, prompt a deeper degree of self-knowledge, a certain foundation for a genuine, grounded sense of self-worth. Both responding to and engaging in creative acts demand that we look within. Art invariably elicits a response — pleasure, sympathy, wonder, delight, fear, anxiety, loathing, boredom, and sadness to name but a few. These responses can be passing sensations, felt and then forgotten, or they can provoke reflection leading to a greater degree of self-knowledge. Skillful docents can do much to ensure that the latter occurs. They can also, in structured and unstructured ways, encourage efforts at artistic expression on the part of those whom they instruct. Such efforts contribute to a strong sense of self in at least two ways. Every artistic effort is a form of self-expression and thus requires that the artist tap into his or her unique emotions, memories, beliefs, and such.
Encounters with the inner world can serve to increase one’s self-knowledge. Furthermore, the act of translating these encounters into some kind of product has the potential to develop self-acceptance, for one must, at least at some level, come to grips with the forces inspiring or driving his or her emotions.
Related Gallery Activities
This activity encourages visitors to take a moment to reflect upon their own values and, as such, increase their self-knowledge. Ask visitors to find a work of art that expresses a value or point-of-view that they share, e.g. a love of the land expressed in a landscape painting. Ask them to write the title of the work of art on one side of a card and, on the reverse, a few short statements about themselves that might account for their choice. For instance, “I live in a farming community. I was taught to respect the land by my parents. I love to sit on our porch and look out across the fields.”
This activity prompts visitors to respond to art using more than just their emotions and memories. It encourages them to reflect upon their values. To expand this activity to include a “feeling with” component, collect the cards and shuffle them. Hand them out randomly and ask participants to match the statements they were given to a work of art (without looking on the other side of the card to see which work was actually selected). Again, discuss as many as time and interest allow, stressing empathetic reasoning over making correct matches.
Many docents do not have opportunities to lead visitors through the art-making process. However, we can structure oral or written activities that encourage visitors to tap into their personal histories in ways that approximate some of the decision-making artists engage in. Questions pertaining to how and why visitors would change a given work of art to make it reflect something about themselves addresses this goal. Being “permitted” to make different choices than an artist made can be very empowering, especially when one’s ideas are met with acceptance and treated with respect by the docent and other members of the group.
Art Appreciation: Accepting the Human Condition
In our culture, certain things are valued — economic prosperity, beauty, intelligence, health, athletic prowess, and the power and status they afford. In the view of many people, attaining these attributes depends upon not differing significantly from society’s norms. In other words, being a “success” requires that we deny much of what it means to be human. We become intolerant of our differences and shortcomings. Personal and cultural differences that do not serve us, threaten us. The failures of others, unless they directly contribute to our victories, frighten us because they remind us of our own vulnerabilities. Not infrequently, in order to avoid despair, we engage in a kind of wholesale denial of our humanity.
Encounters with art can provide a powerful antidote to our culture’s love affair with perfection. Indeed, art can celebrate imperfection, diversity, and frailty. Often artists see beauty in improbable subjects. Ignoring the less than perfect parts of life is, for them, not an option. They may respond to these with rage or wonder or laughter, but they do respond. In doing so, they affirm that it is alright to be less than perfect and that it is more interesting to have in a world with other less than perfect persons.
Related Gallery Activities
Docents might want to begin a tour on this theme with a discussion of some of the ideas expressed in the paragraphs above. They might address the issue of why many people believe so-called “plastic” arts should have content that is beautiful, lofty, and transcendent, when the same is not expected of literature, film/video, and theater. As an activity, docents might ask participants to find works of art that they “don’t like” due to some unpleasantness or its disturbing subject matter. Then, challenge them to think of works they do like in literature, film/video, and drama that deal with similar emotions or subjects. Alternatively, docents might pre-select objects on exhibit and corresponding works from other genres for comparison and discussion. For those who have not grappled with this dichotomy, being encouraged to do so can open doors to new, and sometimes starting, insights.
Art education, including art appreciation and criticism as practiced in museums, will not in and of itself transform schools, renew our cities, or create a commitment to a more peaceful global community. It can, however, play an important part in this process. By cultivating the ability to entertain other perspectives, by encouraging self-awareness and self-acceptance, and by reminding us that the reality and wonder of life lies in its complexities, paradoxes, puzzles, and problems, museum docents can help to develop ways of thinking that can contribute to better ways of living and relating.
Lynn Beck is an Assistant Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at U.C.L.A. Dr. Beck earned her Ph.D. in Education and Human Development from Vanderbilt University.
Betsy Gough-DiJulio is Director of Education at the Virginia Beach Center for the Arts in Virginia Beach, VA. Ms. Gough- DiJulio holds an M.A. in art history’ and has co-authored two other feature articles for The Docent Educator.
Beck, Lynn and Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “Audience-Based Thematic Art Tours,” The Docent Educator 3.1 (Autumn 1993): 4-5.