Sunday, March 30, 2008

Should Museums Aim to Produce Emotional Responses From Visitors?

In considering whether museums should aim to produce emotional responses from visitors, it might be prudent to consider some historical particulars of American art and exhibition that I believe are very pertinent to answering this question in an American context. America’s "Hudson River School" contributed to an early commodification of art in America. Its wilderness imagery served emotively to develop a national identity among citizens of a new nation. So there is this early pairing of art’s ability to emote a particular response from a public, to serve in developing a national identity, and to serve as a commodity, a product. Public exhibiting venues also evolved around this time too, and one phenomena that I see especially pertinent to the above question is that some early American art exhibitions exemplified a perceived need to accentuate the emotive power of representations of sublime wilderness depicted in those early American canvases.

Leading artist Albert Bierstadt orchestrated an Indian settlement in NYC to promote his paintings of America’s primordial past and disappearing far western frontier for urbanites. Paintings by Frederick Church, like Cotopaxi and The Heart of the Andes, were not simply displayed in a frame on the wall of a white cube. They were more effectively exhibited surrounded by plants from the South American destinations they depicted and lit by gas lighting in ways that sought to recreate the real. Additionally, the simulated view of landscape sought the illusion of height and distance for audiences which would ideally emote the special fear mixed with pleasure, the sublime, that the real subject matter was said to summon. Church and others had a product to sell, and they knew how to package it. Summoning awe, disturbance, and excitement was the goal of these nineteenth century artists before the development of art museums, and thus it came to inform the development of public art exhibition itself. Given the choice of simply placing art in a frame in the white cube or orchestrating some spectacle or narrative that can evoke emotions from many, the choice is an obvious one. Successful exhibitions are often defined as much for the good business sense that made them possible as the art work in them. This has predicated the need for the more specular, the more shocking, as one upmanship is played out in the museum world year after year.

Exhibitions, like the Brooklyn Museum’s more infamous showing of Damien Hurst’s Sensations is a more recent example of this phenomena. If this exhibition didn’t summon all kinds of emotions then nothing will. People knew that this was its intent and flocked to it in record numbers. Whether you want to debate whether this was art or not is another question, but I can remember that people I knew who never talked about such questions of aesthetics talked about them and even more rarely went to see what all the brouhaha was about. That makes me believe that such an "aim" is a good thing for both art and museums for it gets the public to the museum; furthermore, it may be necessitated when museums are forced like any other business for the attentions of the public in this brutally competitive market economy. Effecting emotion has obviously worked to keep many museums competitive in a race for the attention of a culture increasingly bombarded by diversions and choices.

More obviously this "aim" has been affirmed by an ever increasing number of museums that create new narratives and present them through new mediums of exhibition. Consider the use of web sites with digital audio, video, and interactive technology that convey ideas and imagery like never before, and summon our emotions like never before. Some recent examples of the use of these new tools to convey the powerful narratives that museums are capable of include the heart wrenching tragedy of genocide in the Congo ( Ripples of Genocide: Journey through Eastern Congo ) as well as a revisitation of the Holocaust ( Life After the Holocaust http://www.ushmmorg/museum/exhibit/online/life_after_holocaust ), among others.

These presentations, exhibitions, and productions have been tailored to evoke emotions garnering empathy, sympathy, understanding, and, ultimately, enlightening us the seeds of such inhumanity and, ultimately, stifling it. The museum’s ability to use new technologies to produce a positive emotion in response to these particular injustices and for the good of all alone makes a very convincing argument in favor of their use.

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