Flash Points

Creat(ive) Expectations

Visitors watching a performance piece in Marina Abramović's exhibition The Artist is Present, MoMA, 2010. Photo by Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times.

Earlier this spring, I ventured to MoMA with my parents who were visiting from New Hampshire for the weekend. Since I can recall, my folks have consistently supported my own artistic endeavors, and over the years, this has grown to include visiting art institutions with me, especially now that I live in New York. At the time of our visit, several exhibitions were up at MoMA, including Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present.

Patiently curious about Abramović’s performance, my parents attempted to take in and understand the artist’s intent and the meaning of her work. Soon afterward in the retrospective galleries, my mother and I walked between two closely facing nudes in Imponderabilia. Immediately, my mom jokingly asked if that piece was supposed to make her feel fat on purpose. Chuckling, I replied that no, of course not, but that it was attempting to make one think about how they experience the world through their body and how this relates to space and to others. In a way, from even just asking the question, she already knew this.

Yet both of my parents tend to cite their lack of formal art education and defer to the artistic authority of a museum whenever they are uncertain about an individual artwork. And why not? If museums position themselves as institutions that facilitate the interface between art and the public, shouldn’t they be experts in this arena? It’s not that my parents don’t try to interpret art and dislike what they come up with, but it’s that they put the curatorial interpretation and museum’s authority before their own. Which forced me to wonder,  how do people with various backgrounds approach art in a museum in the first place?

Visitors to Marina Abramović's exhibition The Artist is Present, MoMA, 2010. Joshua Bright/New York Times.

Such a question may be seemingly impossible to completely answer, but after surveying a small group of people — including my parents — it seems to me that when it comes to approaching art, an individual’s expectations greatly impact one’s experience.

Artists are constantly considering how their work will be read by the viewer and how they will facilitate a particular experience. The critique format that grounds studio art programs and artistic practice is proof of the basic need for art to guide the audience, and therefore, for the artist to guide the viewer. For me, I attempt to communicate through visual manifestation and I seek to convey particular concepts, feelings, or to cause a mental shift that leads the viewer down a path that may border, intersect, or overlap with my own. However, I try to leave my work open to relational interpretation beyond the internal complexities that may drive a particular piece while in the throes of creation. Nonetheless, as creator, artists have an expectation for themselves as the original authority that ultimately facilitates the experience that a viewer has with their work of art. This is why I will more easily challenge a museum’s or curator’s reading of another artist’s work in favor of what I am seeing in front of me. Conversely, my parents are more apt to forego their own interpretation for what the museum offers them instead.

Curious about the approach taken by someone working within the museum system, I asked a curator friend of mine if the challenge of engaging a viewer with little to no art background ever factored into her own curatorial considerations when putting together an exhibition. In other words, does a curator have certain expectations of his or her audience? Citing the museum as an institution for learning, she replied that not only should a curator challenge the viewer, but that it is important to do so. Furthermore, if a museum is an educational institution, then a curator will expect the the audience to anticipate a new experience or new knowledge whenever walking through the doors.  Exhibitions present a particular narrative, theme, or concept that the work included in the show supports in one way or another. What many museum-goers do not fully realize is that they are being presented with one of a multitude of options for interpretation of the included artworks. The work put forth by the artist already aims for a certain kind of audience experience. Yet, how many viewers realize this?

For people with non-art backgrounds like my parents, museums remain the first place that comes to mind when wanting to experience art. Art world insiders typically realize that a museum is staffed by people, who by nature are infallible and have multi-faceted views, making curatorial claims subjective. For other members of the public, if something is in a museum, it has innate cultural value, and the museum’s institutional authority lends to this perceived worth. Some may question the value of a painting that their child could purportedly slap together, but more often than not, the common thought is that they are just not getting it. But what if the viewer is actually spot on about the quality of a painting, and conversely, the museum’s motivations for acquiring and displaying the work is based on the artist’s market value? Not all pieces created by even the greatest artists are amazing examples of artistic mastery. Furthermore, art defined by less traditional media can prove difficult for some viewers to access. Again, in these situations, it is often assumed by the viewer that the he or she is just not understanding the work, as my mother did with Abramović’s re-created performance.

In addition, viewers expect established art institutions like a museum to facilitate their art experience by offering context or information through the presence of labels, wall text, audio guides, tours, and exhibition catalogues. While these learning devices can definitely shed light on the particular art within the oeuvre of the show, they are perceived to be the official sources of knowledge. While this does not wholly diminish one’s own viewpoint, it does reprioritize the viewer’s personal reading of a piece below the museum’s or curator’s perspective. Paradoxically, the general public seems to accept the multitude of ways that art can exist and what it can be or do, while simultaneously expecting that one ultimate meaning exists for each work of art. When in a museum, it is the institution’s interpretation of art that reigns supreme.

Yet what remains consistent for all people when approaching art is that it takes only a fraction of a second to decide if they are experiencing something they like. In the end, this is what keeps people in front of artwork for at least six seconds, sometimes even more. Well, that is if the crowds don’t move you along before you’re done.

Kate Goyette is an artist living in Brooklyn, New York.