What do we talk about when we talk about art?

This spring, I taught undergraduate art history at Bradley University. I recently blogged about this experience on the site Art History Teaching Resources. As I considered how we teach art history to college students, and what we – or I – hope to accomplish with this, I naturally also thought about the practice of art history in a museum environment. Progressive, constructivist art museum education is, generally speaking, not dedicated to teaching art history, the discipline at the heart of art museum exhibitions. If museum educators are not teaching art history, what are they teaching, why, and how does this relate to the larger context of art museums?

Although Art History is a broad term, at its most basic level it is generally understood as “the study of the visual arts in their historical context.” Art museum educators, however, are interested in teaching a skill set: we want visitors to know how to look and make meaning of art on their own. And we reject the idea that a specific body of knowledge is essential to understanding. In the words of Rika Burnham, co-author of Teaching in the Art Museum, “We strive not to impart any particular received knowledge about a given artwork but to create the conditions for a shared experience of looking, seeing, thinking, feeling, and talking.”

For me, exploring what it means to teach art history reframed the traditional conflicts between curatorial and education departments in art museums as a disciplinary conflict. Curatorial / Education differences are often framed as “object-centered vs visitor centered” or a debate about how much information, and in what language, is useful for a museum experience. But at heart, the challenge is that we espouse and promote two entirely different ideas about what we mean when we say we “understand” a work of art, and how we teach others to understand.

Often we solve this conflict by each doing our own thing. The curator creates an exhibition replete with art historical interpretive labels, and the educator ignores these while essentially re-curating an experience, selecting a few objects to look at closely or program around. Meanwhile, art museum educators are themselves divided in what it means to “make meaning” of a work of art, and the role that historical context and other information plays in this process.

One of the primary challenges to discussing these issues is that, outside individual museums, educators and curators rarely meet to exchange ideas.  Curators go to College Art Association conferences; educators attend the National Art Education Association or the American Alliance of Museums conferences. This is both symptomatic of the different disciplines we espouse, and a factor in compounding the problem.

Why does this matter? It matters because the visitor experience is muddied by conflicting agendas. It matters because a stronger shared vision would result in clearer strategies for accomplishing important goals – for example, encouraging visitors to look closely and at length at individual works of art, or reading the catalog or other resources after a visit, to learn more about the art and artists on view. It matters because both art history and museum education are living fields that continue to evolve, and both could benefit from better examining ideas about art objects and meaning.

What can we do about this? The art museum community might work collaboratively to create a space for dialogue between curators and museum educators. For example, we could create a one-time publication that examines art objects from different perspectives, and unpacks what these perspectives say about our ideas around “meaning,” or host a conference at which curators and educators come together to engage in these questions at the heart of museum practice. I suspect that this work would also reveal a wide range of ideas within our disciplines. I suspect that there are curators who think that meaning stems from theory or juxtaposition rather than historical context. And I am certain that museum educators do not have a shared idea about what constitutes “meaning.” Rather than discussing the merits or challenges of incorporating information into inquiry-based practices, we might turn to the underlying questions of what it means to understand a work of art apart from its context, where personal meanings can become problematic, and what types of meaning-making are most meaningful for different audiences.




2 thoughts on “What do we talk about when we talk about art?

  1. There’s good thought here and several genuine insights that are worth taking action on. A notable omission is that the dialog you describe would improve even more if it included critics/reviewers and artists.

    • Thanks, John. In this post I was really interested in the internal dynamics of museums, but point taken. Do you think critics or artists tend to have a very different understanding of meaning than those outlined in this post? If so, how would you categorize or describe these understandings?

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