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.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Gallery Under The Sun: The Origins of the Sculpture Park and Gardens

On a visit to antebellum America, Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley of England was struck by the lack of sculpture. The sculpture she did see in the rural cemeteries consusted largely of grave markers and memorials in the ancient geometry of the Romans, Greeks, and the Egyptians, but there were occasional sculptures in the round and bas-reliefs exemplifying the budding skills of the nation's artists to capture the human form, foliage, and flower. The circumstances for the public's appreciation for these was largely ancillary, for the focus of the cemetery was more importantly the memorialization of the dead as well as the appreciation of the natural beauty surrounding these blocks of stone. The sculpture was more specifically funerary art in forms that almost exclusively included variations on the ancient Egyptian stele, obelisks, and the repetitive classical pedestal and shaft form.

There were also on rare occasions fully articulated three dimensional organic forms imitative of tree trunks and sawn logs in marble, yet these were historically linked with the practice of engraving two dimensional likenesses of trees, flowers, vines, and plant life that had characterized much funerary art from the early colonial period until the nineteenth century. These funerary pieces seemed to almost take root in their natural surroundings to the point of sometimes being mistaken for real trees and real logs as they weathered with time. These contrasted with the seemingly incongruent intrusions of the classically inspired square and rectangular monuments. Three-dimensional sculpture imitative of the characteristics of the surrounding landscape was almost non-existent in the antebellum era.

The public park was the natural progression of rural cemetery design, and the early cemetery ( the word "cemetery" not coming into common use until the second decade of the 19th century in America) similarly intended as a place for public leisure in addition to being a final resting place for the dead. There was flora and foliage in an arrangement that at times attempted to mimic the randomness of wilderness growth. There were also similar arrangements of stone and an attempt to accentuate topographies with inclines for the purpose of vigorous walks and vistas requisite for quiet contemplation. These were in reality only an approximation of the real wilderness; they were more accurately a sanitized version oif the real that served to supplant everything deemed undesirable about the wilderness which ever greater numbers fantisized about experiencing in America's far western frontier by the mid 19th century. For an intelligensia, the rural cemetery, and later the public park, had a proscribed civic role. Through its offering of greenery and solitude act as balm to cure the ills of urban life. It was the sheer lack of greenery and recreational space in the wake of massive immigration and subsequent overcrowding and joblessness in the burgeoning cities of antebellum America that made such places a necessity. Some likened such projects as a release valve to an imminent collapse of all that they valued. While the early cemetery and park did serve as a temporary release for many urban Americans, it was the opportunities that lay to the West, in America's last wilderness destination, that was a more permanent release from the contraints of urban life.

Frederick Law Olmstead was largely responsible for developing the model of the public park in America's urban centers; the prohibition of burials in these new public sites was the major deviation from the earlier rural cemetery design. Like the cemetery, memorials in stone were a characteristic of the public park too and continue to be. This sculpture similarly reflected the era’s taste for the classical. Sculpture continued to be incongruent with the then sought-after naturalness of random growth that Olmstead accomplished through engineered plantings, constructed rock formations, and graded swells. No sculpture was expressly created for the purpose of a wilderness space exuding any type of harmony with its setting. No sculpture from this time expressed a particularly environmental relationship whereby it both accentuated and became an extension of its intended natural surroundings.

The outdoor sculpture garden, as we know it, was realized much later with Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina in the early 1930s, but it too chose sculpture that was both classical, figurative, and seemingly incongruent. The sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was among the first to depart from the tradition of using only classical designs of sculpture in the outdoors; during the same decade works by twentieth-century modern artists would offer a radical departure from how sculpture and what sculpture would inhabit outdoor space (McCarthy 4). But MOMA, as an inner city site, lacked both the size and character of the rural setting realized in both earlier cemeteries and public parks. These sculptures were never site-specific, and this "garden" merely served as an enclave to see and appreciate these sculptures. They were not intended to be interactive or serve any purpose connected to a specifically natural setting. This concept would take longer to evolve.

So when was sculpture expressly created with an interactive and complementary function to a specific natural setting? What were its specific characteristics? And how did it hope to realize this function in an environmental surrounding? Do sculptures from the twentieth and twenty-first century share anything in common with the goals of antebellum rural cemetery design? In order to answer these questions it will be necessary to both identify a selection of twentieth and twenty-first century artists and their works that are both site-specific and consider their planning, realization, and installation. Among the artists that might be considered is Isamu Noguchi, whose work suggests strong ties with both western and eastern aesthetic traditions. These aesthetic identities might also be considered influential to other works of the period given the cultural exchanges of the twentieth century.

In particular, Noguchi’s installation entitled Momo Taro (1977) at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York is of particular interest because it has been intentionally embedded by the artist into the site’s soil becoming literally one with the landscape (McCarthy 83). More recent artists like Maya Lin have achieved similar results in work that appears to naturally emerge from the landscape. Lin's skating rink park in Grand Rapids, Michigan as well as her more famous Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC provide seemingly a symbiosis of sculpture and an extant topography (Sollins).

The work of artist Robert Smithson offers other examples of site-specific sculpture, but, unlike the work of Noguchi and others, his compositions consist of altered landscapes through either an addition or subtraction of natural materials. These he identified as "Earthworks." What makes Earthworks like Spiral Jetty (1970) particularly unique is that it is a work planned to never be finished, for the artist created an altered state of a landscape that continues to be redefined through nature’s effects on it. The rocks and gravel of its spiral shaped form continue to be salinized as a result of its situation within Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Over the past decades salt crystals have produced a layered residue on the jetty which is dramatically illuminated by the desert sun.

Smithson also, through what he defined as "nonsites," also separated raw material from their natural setting and reconfigured them with the addition of other materials like glass and mirror shards. These works could be likened to landscape vignettes within the ubiquitous white cube known as the indoor gallery space. These works suggest further connection with the American art tradition of transmuting wilderness imagery if we consider that the rural cemetery of antebellum America was literally a reconfiguration of wild nature for public consumption (Tsai 29-31).

While the rural cemetery ideally served the didactic purpose of exempifying how greenery and natural setting served antebellum society in positive ways. Building upon this earlier concept of making the preservation of the last vestiges of wild America beyond the city limits implicit in both rural cemetery design and public parks, contemporary artists like Mel Chin have created site-specific installations that draw attention to the chronological progression of the American landscape including the later threat of environmental pollution in order to draw attention to this condition. In his Minneapolis, Minnesota work Revival Field (1990), with agronomist R.L Chaney, his medium for three-dimensional outdoor sculpture has become the soil and plants of a specific ecology itself. This ecology is one tainted by heavy metal pollutants from area industrialization. Through cultivation of specific plants known as "hyperacumulators" within this defined area of fallow industrially tainted land, heavy metals are being drawn out through a process of engineered botanical cleansing. The plants have subsequently been harvested and processed whereby the heavy metals have been reclaimed for either disposed for further use (Sollins).

Further exploration of these more recent artists and their work promises further understanding of a continued concern for versions of nature and wilderness in American art, their transmutation, and their transmittance. Unique to this particular time, these works exemplify not only the realization of sculptures that include landscape itself but the use of nature’s forces to realize continuously altered states of appearance. Like the material culture of nineteenth century rural cemeteries and public parks, these more recent works promise a continued dialogue about nature; its aesthetic value, its didactic function, its civic function, and the necessity for its preservation.


Sollins, Susan and Susan Dowling, Art:21— Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season One, PBS Home Video, 2003.

Tsai, Eugene. "Robert Smithson: Plotting a Line from Passaic, New Jersey to Amarillo, Texas." Robert Smithson, Ed. Eugene Tsai with Cornelia Butler, The Museum of Contemporary Art, LA, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.