How do we learn from art? Observations on interpretation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I know it’s art, because it’s in a gallery at one of the premiere cultural institutions in the world, but to me it just looks like a pile of bricks.

Continuing the American theme as i work my way around the States, i was pleased to be able to visit the famous Museum of Modern Art, or MOMA as it prefers to be known. Situated in Manhattan, it’s a true melting pot of varied art forms, unified only by their disparity and youth.

The bricks in question sat, forlornly, in one of the galleries, next to a wall that purported to have a bullet hole in it and a space where someone had removed a square of plasterboard. Modern art indeed, in all it’s stereotyped glory.

In the next gallery was a Van Gogh, works by Picasso and a Henry Moore sculpture. Presenting and interpreting these varied art forms in anything like a coherent manner is a challenge indeed. Clearly in monetary terms, the Picasso is worth more. But does that mean it’s worth more in cultural terms?

Take the hole in the wall. Large black letters along the top of a blank white wall proclaimed ‘A wall pitted by a single air rifle shot’. Swarms of people were scouring the wall to try an ascertain where the hole was. Several thought they’d found it. But they hadn’t, because there was no hole. Instead, the artwork was an idea. Sometimes it’s presented as an actual hole in a wall. The ‘art’ is the concept and phrase ‘a wall pitted by a single air rifle shot’. You can present or interpret it as you will. In this case, the curators seemed particularly pleased with themselves that they’d chosen to just write the words in vinyl letters.

Well, ok. It’s an idea i guess, and ideas have value, although it’s at the far end of my spectrum of art appreciation. Although i’m still talking about it today, which i guess means it got me thinking, which may well be one of the primary functions of art in the first place.

How do we learn from art thought? It’s usually presented as an abstract form, something to appreciate and enjoy, but not necessarily something to learn from. And even when you start to think about how we learn from it, we have to ask what can we learn from the juxtaposition of such varied and unusual art as this?

Curation is a process that involves choosing which subset of a much larger collection to put on display, and then how to interrelate the objects to form a coherent narrative. Finally, there is usually a layer of interpretation, where the curator tells the story as they understand it. For example, in a gallery of the Impressionists, you would usually expect to see paintings unified by style, or starting with early forms that informed the style. Progression is usually chronological, but may be by geography, school or artist.

Objects are often explained in detail themselves, but also may be interpreted in relation to other things within the gallery. This interrelationship is key to our understanding of art: it’s not just the object in isolation, it’s the object in relation to the other objects, concepts and ideas that counts.

Understanding context, as with so many things in learning, is important. If we don’t understand the context, it’s hard to appreciate the object, or rather, it’s hard for me to appreciate it, because my assumption is that it has to have value.

For others, this may be different, because we all consume art in different ways. For some people, it’s valuable to know the ‘story’, to understand the narrative of an individual piece and how it fits into a whole. For others, the end is the means. It’s enough just to ‘be’. And i have some sympathy with this view too: the bricks don’t have to ‘mean’ anything, it’s enough for them to simply exist. The challenge is not for the artist to create meaning, the challenge is for us as consumers to create understanding: essentially, it’s down to us to make of it what we will.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Interpretation, Museum Education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How do we learn from art? Observations on interpretation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

  1. Pingback: Collaboration, community and curation | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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