Thursday, May 9, 2013

Visual Art and the Sacred: On The Importance Of Museums

I just finished writing an essay about the day Picasso made me fall down.  I'm sending it off to my favorite editor, and if it's accepted, I'll post a link here.

The event I wrote about took place over two decades ago, when Picasso's Guernica was still housed in the Casón del Buen Retiro at the Prado Museum in Madrid.  (It is now in the Reina Sofia, in a larger but - in my opinion - far inferior room.  You can learn a bit about that here.)

New Acropolis Museum, Athens
Meanwhile, here's the upshot of my essay: education that's prepackaged and canned is not enough.  Education is not the same as transferring information.  It involves informing students, to be sure, but what we tell students should not satisfy them; it should provoke them to want more.  Professors are not conduits of data; at our best we are like guides and gardeners.  As guides we point students in new directions and help them to see what we see.  Just as gardeners cannot make seeds grow but can prepare the soil, so our teaching should be about increasing the fertility of minds and then stepping back to watch what grows.  Also, there is occasional weeding involved.

As an undergraduate I knew very little about art.  Part of this was my disposition: I liked representational art that was easy to look at quickly.  Part of it was a matter of my worldview, and the suspicion that some modern artists who eschewed representational art were trying to undermine something good, obscurantists clouding clear vision.

Time spent in museums has changed me a good deal, as has making the acquaintance of Scott Parsons and Daniel Siedell, who have helped me quite a lot through their patient conversation and what they have written.  (Scott and I wrote a chapter on teaching students about visual culture and the sacred in Ronald Bernier's short but illuminating book Beyond Belief, in which Dan also has a chapter.) Some of Makoto Fujimura's short writings, James Elkins's book On the Strange Place of Religion in Modern Art, and Gregory Wolfe's work at Image have also provided me with clear and helpful education about art that I resisted when I was younger.

Museums are certainly controversial.  Curators make decisions that both expand and limit what we see, and this can be exploited to achieve sordid political ends.  Some ideas and cultures are given preferential treatment while others are made less known by their omission.  They tend to be located in large, wealthy cities, which means that poor people, rural people, and foreigners have limited or no access to them.  But if the alternative is no museums, or all of the world's artifacts in private collections, I will take the museums we have, coupled with ever striving to make them better.

Because museums are a tangible way we can commit to remembering our history together.  Museums are not safe deposit boxes where we lock away our treasures; they are Wunderkammers and classrooms where we may think and learn together.

I have come to love museums, especially the British Museum and the beautiful New Acropolis Museum in Athens (and I'm aware of the irony of that pairing) but I also love the little museums I find in small towns the world over. 


  1. I just read your "Picasso/Guernica" piece in _The Chronicle Review_ (August 16, 2013). Well said. Truly.

    I had a similar experience with Michaelangelo's "Freed Slave" and "Dying Slave" one day at the Louvre in 1976, where those masterworks were on loan. I had studied them in college, but thought they weren't much. I was 21, and so wrong. I downed some stairs, turned a corner, and there they were. Stunned at the sight, I wept and wept.

    I have never seen the original "Guernica." My wife has described it to me–the overwhelming experience of its size and passion; its grief and protest; its tortured alienation. It's "The Slaughter of the Innocents" in postmodern mode.

    My experience of "Guernica," oddly, came best through a text: Chaim Potok's hauntingly great novel, _My Name is Asher Lev_ (NY: Knopf, 1970s) which I hope you have read, or shall read. Somewhere in mid-book, the young Hasidic Jew, Asher Lev, a conflicted genius torn between his anti-iconic Lubavitch Orthodoxy, and his own surpassing skill at iconic art, is assigned the task of studying Picasso's "Guernica." The tale is riveting in its anguish and beauty.

    Thank you for telling us all so well that education fundamentally is not the amassing of factoids, but the radical openness to encounter the great, grand world with all its sorrow and near-infinite possibility. In my academic career, I teach a lot of "facts," but (I hope) always in service to my students' self-discovery of the good, the true, the beautiful, the holy.

    1. Thanks, Byron. Your brief description of your experience is moving, and it makes me feel like we've got something important in common.

      The longer I teach the less confident I am in the "factoids" and the more confident I am that there are sublime experiences waiting around corners, and that my job is one in which I have the privilege of urging students to continue to peer around those corners with open eyes.

      Asher Lev has been on my long list for a while but I've not read it yet. I'll shift it to the short list.

      Again, thanks for writing.