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What to do When People Talk Back! Questioning Modern Art

Docents experimenting with the inquiry method often find that adults on tours are more comfortable with a lecture-oriented style of teaching. Within art museums, however, there is usually one type of art that never fails to draw comments from visitors: twentieth-century art. Docents talking about modem art experience the opposite problem when their audiences are all too eager to enter into a heated discussion. Furthermore, the questions that adults ask about modem art are often frustrating and difficult to answer. Comments such as, “My six year old child could do this!” and questions such as “How much did this cost?” are frequently encountered in exhibitions of abstract art. In fact, many docents often harbor such questions themselves.

The problem of interpreting modem art, especially nonobjective and conceptual art, continues to plague museum educators. What is the proper way to handle a hostile or disbelieving public when you, yourself, may be having some doubts? Art critic Leo Steinberg points out that “some people always feel, and all people sometimes feel” discomfort when confronted with a new and unfamiliar style. This discomfort often manifests itself as a kind of hostility on behalf of the public that can direct itself to innocent and unsuspecting docents. Examining some of the causes of this hostility may help docents transform their public’s antagonism into meaningful discussions.

Much twentieth-century art seeks to redefine the traditional materials, methods, and functions of art. It intentionally challenges ideas about the role of art, raising questions rather than providing easy answers. It is therefore not surprising that uninitiated viewers have trouble accepting it as art. Instinctively, docents respond to this “credibility gap” in modem art by giving their audiences information about the history of art and how particular artists fit within that tradition. While talking about an artist’s the or training can be helpful in persuading people that the object in question was made by a bona fide, serious artist, it does not make the credibility gap go away.

In fact, viewers can often be surprisingly articulate in describing the visual qualities of abstract art or tuning in to the intentions of conceptual pieces while at the same time continuing to doubt their validity as art. For example, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Richard Long’s Limestone Circle, stones found by the artist on one of his walks and arranged on the museum floor, often evokes insightful comments about art, nature, and the symbolism of circles, and comparisons with the Museum’s own Japanese tea house garden. But visitors continue to question the “artness” of Long’s Limestone Circle despite their proven ability to understand the piece in all its complexity. Giving people information about modern art, or even discussing its meaning, is often not sufficiently convincing to keep viewers from continuing to wonder, “Why is that art?”

It is helpful to consider why the credibility gap in modern art occurs. First, art is not a quality that is intrinsic to certain objects. A painting is not art because it is a painting, but rather because in our society, certain ideas place the painting in the category of objects known as art, giving it an aesthetic value. The notion of art is a culturally conceived idea that is applied to certain types of things and activities. Viewers question the art value of a piece because they have their own personal ideas about what art is, and these ideas are clearly in conflict with the institutional definitions of art as evidenced by the art in the museum setting. Furthermore, museum visitors assume that the museum’s definition of art is unique and absolute, an assumption that is fostered by the way in which many museums exhibit art. In truth, we live in a pluralistic society and museums are just one among many definers of art. However, when the definitions used by museum professionals differ from those of museum visitors, the docent can find herself in the middle of conflicting values.

While the individual definitions of art held by average museum visitors are perfectly valid, they do not play an active role in shaping the decisions made by art world professionals. The anger and frustration that viewers experience when confronting art that they do not understand and cannot value as art is heightened by the sense of powerlessness they feel knowing that they cannot really have much impact on the museum’s decisions about what to collect and how to display it. Contemporary art becomes prominent through a complex network made up of artists, art critics, collectors, curators, dealers, and scholars. Collecting the art of one’s own time is especially challenging because the perspective that comes with the passage of time is lacking. Experts are all too aware that they take calculated risks with their decisions and that these may be judged differently in the future.

The notion of art experts is abhorrent to many people and directly in conflict with one of the assumptions that underlies art museums, namely that art is a universal language and anyone who can see can understand. It is clearly difficult to accept the notion of specialists in a field that has traditionally presented itself as universally accessible. In fact, the assumption that art speaks equally to all people because it is a visual language is incorrect. The kind of looking that art requires is a specialized looking framed by a particular set of values. As noted earlier, art is a culturally bound concept, deeply imbedded in the meanings and beliefs of particular times and places. Many civilizations created beautiful objects but did not have the word “art ” in their vocabulary. Very few cultures, with Western European and American cultures being the large exceptions, created objects such as paintings for the sole purpose of installing them in museums and galleries so that they could be admired for their visual qualities.

Docents usually receive the brunt of visitors’ anger since they are perceived to be representatives of the museum’s authority (and accessible). There are a number of ways to handle this kind of attack. First, it is essential that docents not put themselves in the position of defending the art. This only makes matters worse. Instead, docents should give viewers plenty of space to vent their feelings and encourage even quiet people to talk. This gives people an opportunity to sound off and, in the process, they may discover that not everyone feels the same way they do. Many people assume that all other observers perceive a situation the same as they do and that if they respond differently, it is because of some perverse willfulness rather than because they act on different perceptual information. Anthropologists label this kind of assumption “phenomenal absolutism,” reflecting an inability to accept that different people see and value things differently. Docents may poll their viewers and engage them as much as possible in discussions about their personal likes and dislikes in order to illustrate to the assembled group that all people do not think or see alike, and that personal tastes do play an important role in the appreciation of modern art.

Docents should also seek to discover what it is about the viewer’s personal definition of art that comes into conflict with the object in question. Often with abstract art, craftsmanship is the key component present in the viewer’s definition but missing in the art. For many people, if the object looks easy to make it is not as artistic as something that is hard to make. There are variations on this theme since some people have neatness in their definition and therefore don’t like the messy stuff, such as the action painting of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning, while others put the emphasis on self-expression and will get confused by the hard-edged control of a Piet Mondrian or an Elsworth Kelly.

Many visitors are overly focused on the high prices of art objects because newspapers and broadcasts about the large sums spent on art influence ideas about its worth. It is easy to demonstrate that objects may have many other values beyond monetary ones. A knickknack, for instance, has sentimental value; a flag has symbolic value; and a religious image is treasured for its spiritual and inspirational value. Ai-t reflects cherished ideas about originality and the importance of individual expression in a world of mass-production and imitation. If some art objects are surprisingly expensive, it is because they are prized for being rare, even unique.

Informed docents will approach modern art with a spirit of adventure. Because it provides numerous opportunities for heated discussion and debates, modern art is often ideal for fostering an inquiry method approach to teaching about art.

Danielle Rice is Curator of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Prior to this, she served in the same capacity for the National Gallery of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum. She earned her B.A. at Wellseley College and her Ph.D. from Yale University. In 1989, Ms. Rice was the keynote speaker at the National Docent Symposium.

Rice, Danielle. “What to do When People Talk Back! Questioning Modern Art” The¬†Docent Educator¬†1.3 (Spring 1992): 8-10.

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