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The Wireless DMA
by Jerome Weeks 12 Feb 2009

Surely you remember that Art & Seek feature story from last fall, the one about how museums are exploring different ways online to present themselves, their public image and their individual holdings? Memorable, right? Well, it was a tough story to report, he barked, slamming down his cup of java.  He ticked the items off […]


Surely you remember that Art & Seek feature story from last fall, the one about how museums are exploring different ways online to present themselves, their public image and their individual holdings?

Memorable, right?

Well, it was a tough story to report, he barked, slamming down his cup of java.  He ticked the items off on his trembling, tobacco-stained fingers:

A) The museums are scrambling in several different directions at once: blogs, behind-the-scenes images, online photo contests, etc.

B) Some of the things they’re doing and why they’re doing them are insider-baseball-ish (for instance, the debate over what kind of info should go online and whether it will affect public attendance).

And C) the single most ambitious and most remarkable effort, the DMA’s Arts Network, is very difficult to explain in a sentence or two. Perhaps that’s why it’s gotten, like, zero public attention. It’s not just that the DMA will be wireless (it already is) and visitors will be able to access tons of data about individual artworks they couldn’t before. It’s how all that will work organizationally and presentationally, as it were: how all that info will be gathered (from the different departments — documents, video clips, donor data) and presented (to all the different visitors: scholars, students researching a paper, ordinary art lovers, etc.).

That may not sound sexy, but it involves almost the entire museum and it involves all those parts trying to open up to the public online in some coordinated, accessible, useful fashion.

See? he said and slumped in his seat. That didn’t really help, did it?

OK. So just look at the DMA’s smart Flash video that explains the basic aspects of the Arts Network, what a visitor might want to know. Art & Seek hopes to post the thing ourselves soon.

  • Bill Marvel

    I’m — not skeptical, exactly, but reserved about all this.
    The information is probably useful. But art is not information. Art is experience, and no clips, docs, or data can give you an experience. They can add something to the experience, but they can also distract and detract.
    I think all this effort to cram the visitor full of information — when did it start? AcoustiGuides? — has diluted art. It has turned art museums – and to a lesser extent theaters and concert halls, with their after-play discussions and pre-concert lectures – into that kind of mandatory but well-meant cultural duty that we attend expecting, in the immortal words of Anna Russell, “neither reward nor enjoyment.”
    The same phenomenon has overtaken literature, so that we now have book clubs and discussion groups, but little actual reading.
    I don’t want to push my argument too far. Obviously, these things can help open our eyes and ears. But they can also become substitutes for our eyes and ears, and I think one of the peculiarities of the kind of lives we live now is that so much that we experience is mediated that we are in danger of losing the ability to recognize an experience when we have one.

  • Carlo

    It says it will allow visitors to be “active producers” of their museum experience. Do audiences want to be “active producers”? Isn’t that the job of the curator?

  • mary

    I’d rather see money spent to bring in exhibitions like Turner or Eliasson. Or on new acquisitions.

    I think the hand-held devices and computers just get between the viewer and the art. I just want to look at the art, not have it “explained” to me.

  • If you followed the link to my earlier story about the DMA’s Arts Network, you would find that it is not meant to take the place of the experience of visiting the museum and viewing artworks. Quite the contrary: Studies show that the more information you give us, the more we want to see. Consider your own experience: You see something about an exhibition, that triggers your interest to see more. You attend the exhibition but it doesn’t answer all your questions about that period, this school, that genre.

    When did all this information-providing start in museums, Bill? Well, why did the ‘tombstone info card’ become the only acceptable data and medium (with title, name, birth and death)? Why not remove those? Some curators have argued that. They believe in scrupulously standing aside.

    Fine, there’s an argument to made there. But the fact is, artworks prompt curiosity in many of us. Many people do want to know what this is made of, why the artist chose this metal, this posture, this view. Museums must respond to different demands, different audiences.

    The wireless device “will not get between the viewer and the art” because the viewer can simply decide not to use it. We will be able attend the museum just as we’ve always done. I haven’t seen armed guards requiring visitors to take acoustiguides yet, and they’re not likely to start forcing them at gunpoint to carry wireless devices, either.

    People already can access MOMA’s acoustiguides in NY wirelessly, if they want. In effect, Arts Network just adds video to that. Our lives are overly mediated and data-saturated already, I cannot agree more. And we can turn all of that off for what I often enjoy in a museum: the serenity of contemplation.

    Still, if I do wish to access the Arts Network, as the video makes clear, I’ll be able to establish what level of information I want. Are you a scholar or student researching this particular sculpture? Are you simply a tourist who’d like to know a little more background about this photographer?

    But what if, in learning about him, you discover that the DMA has a videotape of Susan Sontag discussing just this photo? Would you like to see it? Or perhaps it has a letter from the artist answering the original owner’s questions about the artwork. Care to read it?

    As for the money being spent on the Arts Network, it was part of a sizable grant that the DMA got to develop its Center for Creative Communications and to research the Arts Network itself — meaning the DMA wouldn’t have gotten the money to acquire more works.

  • Bill Marvel

    I don’t want to be an absolutist about this, Jerome.
    But I think at a certain point art history as a discipline came to eclipse the actual experience of the art, at least in the minds of museum professionals, academics, and critics. (I make this judgement as a onetime critic.) And I think many have come to see their role primarily as teachers of history. Ever take the time to listen to a docent conducting a tour?
    I doubt that most museum-goers visit, say, an exhibit of impressionism because they’re curious about late 19th century France and its culture. I think they go to experience the paintings. I do think a knowledge of the period might in some limited ways enhance that experience. But it can also get in the way. There’s a famous Jasper Johns bronze called “The Critic Sees,” a pair of eyeglasses with mouths, not eyes, behind the lens. The point being there is a danger of “seeing” the art object in terms of what’s written about it.
    You and I both have an academic background and have worked as critics, which I think blinds us — or at least dims our eyes — to this possibility. But I remember the piles of reading I often did before reviewing exhibits, and I often wonder, to what extent was i able to see the work fresh?
    (On the other hand, for years I didn’t “get” cubism. In a certain sense I was blind to it. In the mid 1970s, the Met had a huge cubism show. I did a lot of reading before I reviewed the show. I spent the morning walking through, making notes, then took a lunch break. In the afternoon i took another walk-through. It was as though the second time the paintings popped into focus. I saw them entirely differently, more clearly. I could read cubist space. To what extent had my reading prepared me to “see” cubism? I can’t say. But I can’t deny it had some effect.)
    My main concern here is that the art-historical and curatorial apparatus may come to mediate the art. I know that no experience of art is “pure.” But it helps to kind of wash the mind in order to see fresh. I remember a long dialogue with a Marxist critic one time. I came away wondering: Does he really see the painting, or does he see oppressed masses, exploitation, the economic structure of the time, the usual cliches of ideological interpretation?
    I also wonder about those crowds of folks shuffling through an exhibit, Acoustiguides glued to their ears. What do they see, if anything? Museums can get in the way of the art. They can come to think of themselves primarily as dispensers of historical and cultural “information.”
    I’m asking, is there something wrong with this picture?

  • Time to get art out of the ivory castle museums! Painting reproduction will change the entire idea of museums as we send out copies to every small town everywhere. The real tech innovation is not online art study, but reproduction of art on trucks going out to where people are.
    I predict a golden age of art paintinfg that will match the music explosion of the 50’s and 60’s. Once you open the door to a lot of people, a lot of talent comes out.

  • Yes, Tom Wolfe made the point about criticism overwhelming the artwork more than 30 years ago in The Painted Word. It’s funny how people stopped visiting art exhibitions in droves once that book came out. You can see it any time the Kimbell brings in another blockbuster Impressionist show. No one’s there, the galleries are sadly littered with abandoned histories, theories and biographies.

    Again, people can choose their level of interaction and data saturation, and they always have been able to. I think this ‘crisis’ is mostly in critics’ and journalists’ and academics’ heads, mine included — and it’s also the concern of ordinary, interested art lovers who’d like to learn more and encounter the great mass of sources and bios and don’t know what to choose or whom to trust. Which is why they gratefully turn to people like Simon Schama. Or Tom Wolfe.

    But, pace Bill, if people don’t decide, hey, let’s go see the Impressionists show to learn more about 19th century Paris, I suspect they also do not think, I don’t want to go see the Impressionists because I might have to read something there. Or I might be made to feel ignorant if I don’t pick up an acoustiguide to learn about 19th century Paris. To the contrary, I occasionally sense a certain snobbery directed toward users of the acoustiguides — just as I sense it in some of the comments here. Oh? You need that crutch? You can’t experience these works of genius unaided?

    The idea that an artwork is and should always be instantly apprehended by the average, unaided viewer is one based on 19th century ideas of realistic portraiture and landscape, of the decline of aristocratic patronage, the rise of photography and a middle-class audience. A face is a face, a tree is a tree, who needs to interpret? Art should just be a clear glass window. I’m not saying such ideas are wrong or anti-intellectual. But artworks based on such thinking do not constitute the majority of cultural representations over the centuries in the West and aren’t even a significant minority outside the West. All the way back to medieval art and certainly up through the Renaissance and the Baroque, a viewer needed an education to catch the Biblical-mythical-classical-patronage references in many works. That nude is not a nude, she’s the goddess Niobe and one of her obscure 12 children in the painter’s representation of a badly translated passage from Ovid, with Niobe based on a local nobleman’s mistress.

    I am not saying such works can’t be enjoyed without specialized knowledge — otherwise, we wouldn’t still be appreciating them because it’s impossible to recreate every resonance that was originally intended or understood on the work’s first appearance. No one has successfully explained Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights to everyone’s satisfaction yet it still fascinates us. But I don’t see the value in willfully remaining ignorant of all historical-biographical-interpretive background — if we don’t have to. What Wolfe disdained — the rise of art theory in the mid-20th century because of the success of modernism, cubism and especially abstract expressionism — came about partly because we could no longer assume the great many new viewers now exposed to art through the spread of museums and mass media would have that traditional, classic, liberal-arts education. Nor was that education necessarily seen as desirable anymore — given what the Europeans did with it in two world wars. So the 20th century’s oddball new art needed explanation. And explainers arose, partly because people wanted to understand, wanted to know.

    The fact is, I rarely use the acoustiguides myself, finding the whispering voice a distraction. I do like to read up in advance, however; it’s just a habit of mind. I probably won’t use the wireless service extensively, either — unless I learn about something marvelous that’s available (learning this, perhaps, from one of those ubiquitous cards on the museum’s wall). And won’t it be terrific, at that moment, to pull out a wireless-enabled cell phone and experience that item right then and there?

    And won’t it be equally welcome to be able to turn the damned thing off right then and there — and enjoy the rest of the exhibition without it, if I wish?

    • 1. I notice that no one seems to respond to this point: The use of the Arts Network is entirely voluntary. You find it intrusive? Don’t use it. By implementing a service that gives visitors access to more information but which they don’t have to use — how is the DMA interfering or harming anyone’s enjoyment of art?

      2. Actually, no, Mary, much of this information is not currently available online or anywhere else. And if the information is already available online, why shouldn’t it be available online wirelessly?

      The DMA (along with hundreds of other museums) has archives of letters, videotapes and audio recordings that are not easily accessed by the average visitor. For instance, all of those marvelous lecture/readings in the Arts & Letters Live series by visiting authors? They’re taped and stored. So what do we do with them? How can people access what could well be a treasure trove of scholars and authors commenting on, answering questions about, some of the DMA’s own artworks?

      This is one of the issues museums are facing as they put their collections online. How much do we put out there? And if we’re going to put out everything, how should it be organized and how should it be available? Again, if it’s all going to be online — and that’s the way things are going, to the immeasurable benefit of scholars and students all over the world who can’t get to your city to study a particular item and the information you have on it, and to the benefit of your own collection because now, many more people can understand what it is you have — if it’s all going to be online, then why not online in a way that people can access in the handiest, most immediate way?

      3. You can’t “see” until you know at least some of what you’re looking at. No one understands a totally new work in a vaccuum. “So, this is a two-dimensional representation of what seems to be a three-dimensional scene. It apparently uses some sort of colored pigment and is encased in a wooden frame. OK, that means it’s not a novel by Charles Dickens; it’s probably an oil painting.”

      The brain cannot assess something entirely on its own, something entirely removed from classification. If the only novel you’ve ever read is “Moby-Dick,” then you’re going to have relatively skewed notions of what a novel does. “Wait, why doesn’t “Pride and Prejudice” contain chapters about the whaling industry?” We judge things partly in relationship to other things to which they bear some resemblance or have some connection.

      Bill and Mary, you were both taught to look, taught how to look — in fact, Mary, you learned it in an art history class. Bill was just burdened by his years as an arts journalist working near me. Yes, this tendency of the brain to understand by categories does mean many people tend to slot and label things, and that’s a lazy habit of mind. But by providing even more information by which we might understand art works, I hardly think Arts Network is going to change that, encourage it or arrest it.

      Quite the opposite would be true: If all the museum posted was “Claude Monet. Water Garden, 1919. Impressionism” — then people would feel that painting had been safely slotted.

  • Bill Marvel

    Tom Wolfe is a witty and entertaining writer. But the man has no eye. You read him and you just know he’s never really looked at a painting or a building. So I doubt that he’s a useful argument for either one of us.
    If people go see the Impressionists show to learn more about 19th century Paris, then they’re not really interested in art, are they? They’re interested in something else — history, culture, whatever.
    And here’s the heart of our disagreement, Jerome, a disagreement incidentally that goes back to our days at the DMN:
    “if people don’t decide, hey, let’s go see the Impressionists show to learn more about 19th century Paris, I suspect they also do not think, I don’t want to go see the Impressionists because I might have to read something there. Or I might be made to feel ignorant if I don’t pick up an acoustiguide to learn about 19th century Paris.”
    The assumption here is that merely looking at a work of art is a mindless activity, mere appreciation, not thinking. It doesn’t become thinking until the mind starts to turn over ideas about middle class values in late 19th-century Paris, the Salon, and the rise of photography and so forth.
    But we know from the way the brain operates that seeing is never a passive process. Seeing IS thought. It’s not verbal thought, but it’s thought, nontheless, and thought of a very high order.
    Is seeing divorced from what one knows of history and so forth? Of course not. But in looking at art, the seeing has to come first. If it doesn’t, what one “knows” gets in the way. It inflects what one sees. We then read works in terms of what we expect to find there. Ah, yes. Impressionism: Bourgeois Paris, decadence of the salon, etc.
    That an artwork is and should always be instantly apprehended by the average, unaided viewer is an idea I’ve never espoused. Quite the opposite. As the great Leo Steinberg remarked, It takes a lifetime to learn to see a painting. He wasn’t talking about a lifetime of studying French history. He was talking about a lifetime of looking.
    Specialized knowledge certainly adds to the art experience, after a point. nd it;s a very good thing in itself. My worry — to repeat this to the point of tedium — is that the modern museum-goer is never allowed to reach that point because his mind is flooded with all sorts of “information” before he ever learns to look at the painting or sculpture.
    I’ll go a step further here. I think that the omnipresence of media of all kinds in our lives endangers our ability to see. There are a number of artists whose works address this very problem in very sophisticated ways.

  • Mary

    The best art history teacher I had always said don’t read the label first – just LOOK. I suspect he wouldn’t be crazy about the acoustiguides and wireless devices either.

    The contextual information is already available – at the library, on the web, in textbooks….I just don’t feel it needs to be right there in front of the artwork.

    As far as the money goes, yes the DMA got a grant to do this. But the time and effort that went into getting the grant and is being spent to develop this material could have been put to much better use.

    • Bill Marvel

      Wow! Great! Think of all the other novels that might profit from Zombiefication — Fenimore Cooper’s to start with. Chas. Dickens, though he might already have one in there, somewhere. In the 20th Century, Hemingway, I think. Might break down some of that silly Midwestern terseness. Henry James could always use a Zombie or two. Oh, and Tom Wolfe post Kool-Aid Acid Test.

  • Bill Marvel

    Many novels — though not Jane Austen’s — could well do with a chapter or two on 19th century whaling.
    But I suspect our difference is mainly one of emphasis. I wish i had a dime for every time I’ve stood beside someone with — how to put this delicately? — an excessively literary sensibility who quite literally could not see what was right in front of their eyeballs. Certainly not you, Jerome, though we’ve never “done” a museum together. That might be an interesting experiment.
    My basic point remains. Culturally we live in a world in which sensory experience is so mediated that we no longer think with our eyes or our ears, but with some file-cabinet lodged in the corners of our brain. I wouldn’t give up my file cabinet for anything. You’re dealing with someone who owns well over 20,000 books. But it took me years to learn to see, really see, works of art. It’s a difficult and hard-won discipline and one that is much neglected by the very institutions that ought to encourage it.
    I think most museum-goers feel obliged to juice up the visit with as much information as possible because as the 20th century taught and as the 21st century seems determined to remind us, if its not information, it’s not worth our time.

    • Speaking about Jane Austen’s regrettable neglect of many important topics that any halfway decent Regency novel should address — whaling techniques, cyberspace — you have heard about this little item, haven’t you?