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Skeptical Visitors in the Art Museum

Chances are that every docent will eventually encounter reluctant or skeptical visitors. Docents serving in art museums and galleries have special problems with such viewers since much of the art world seems subjective and mysterious to novice gallery-goers. Because art museums do not have the same straightforward, factual aura found in many science and history museums, viewers feel particularly at liberty to rely upon their own opinions and to confuse these opinions with informed, critical evaluations. The opinions and biases of these visitors are easily activated by abstract and non-representational works, contemporary art, naive and folk art, as well as by nudity and certain themes that may conflict with religious or political beliefs.

Skeptical viewers come in all ages. It is not unusual for young children when looking at naive art to say, scornfully, “It looks like a kid did that!” And, every decent eventually meets visitors who say some version of “Do people get money for that?” “If this is art, I’m going home!” “My kid could do that!” “I could do that!”

Remarks such as these often reveal biases about art that are typical of many viewers. You, yourself, may even share some of these thoughts. How can you become more comfortable with your own questions and handle the skeptical visitor, too?

It may be helpful to remember that almost everyone is uncomfortable when first confronting the unfamiliar. Therefore, it is best not to rush the process of understanding. Recall that most art styles and movements were not greeted with joyful acceptance when they first emerged. The Impressionists, whose works are among the most widely enjoyed today, were rejected from the French academic salons and were referred to as “lunatics” in the press when their works first appeared. Even the term impressionism, derived from the title of a Monet painting, was not considered a flattering one at that time.

Many visitors arrive with the belief that art should be “beautiful.” This is an idea that dates back to ancient times. However, definitions of what constitutes beauty have changed during the intervening years, as has what the term “beauty” refers to. Over the centuries “beauty” has been defined as physical appearance, goodness, morality, as certain sublime emotions, or as a psychological response to certain predictable visual stimuli. The problem with using beauty as the criterion for art is that it is not specific, and that it is culturally, temporally, and personally subjective. It also discounts the idea that artists are people who challenge our assumptions, rather than simply pander to them.

Art is not simply decoration. It is a language or visual code for important ideas in culture. Art functions as far more than the personal expression of the artist. Art discusses what we think, how we behave, and what we feel. Just as contemporary life is not always beautiful, contemporary art can reflect the strife inherent in our times — violence, disease, political oppression, racism, and sexism.

At some point in your tour, it is incumbent upon you to demonstrate how an art work can be analyzed. Through the process of questioning, help visitors see a work’s formal design elements. Develop discussions about any narrative subject matter you, or they, perceive in the work. If some deeper symbolic or hidden meaning seems evident, talk about that. Skeptical viewers often do not know that understanding art is more than just reacting to it.

Let your visitors know that understanding art is not like watching television. You cannot be passive and simply respond. You must participate and use your ability to see. Quick glances of 30 seconds or less, which are the kind that many visitors give to any particular work, will not inform. Model more productive behaviors by spending as much time as possible with a single object to demonstrate the process of in-depth looking and consideration.

Ask questions of your reluctant visitors, such as:

  • What choices did the artist have to make about materials? About color?
  • What risks did this artist take?
  • If you could remake this work, how would you make it better, or different?
  • What might the artist be trying to tell us in this work?
  • What might a child (or with children, an adult) say about this work?
  • What do you think this artist’s life is like? How do you find that in his/her work?

Another challenge skeptical viewers may pose is their belief that an artist may be deliberately fooling us, and that the work is a scam or a slap in the face. They may even believe that curators and critics have “had the wool pulled over their eyes.”

Given the fact that less than 1% of serious artists actually make a reasonable living from their art alone, it seems unlikely that many artists would use the hard-won opportunity to exhibit their work just to mock institutions and the people visiting them. While some artists do use their work to question art trends, the sanctity of the museum world, or the preciousness of art objects, these efforts are done in earnest and have validity.

One of the most important things a docent can teach is to feel open and relaxed with works of art, rather than tense and fearful. A docent’ s attitude about viewing art, even when unspoken, will be sensed and noted. It is essential that docents be open-minded and accepting of art. No, he or she need not love everything on display; however, the docent should remember and understand that personal feelings about art do not constitute informed viewing or a full, solid critical evaluation.

Should you experience personal difficulties accepting a work or an exhibition, take this as challenge. Do some research. Discuss the work(s) with staff members until you are more comfortable, or at least until you understand why the museum has chosen to display it/them.

Art has the power to stir emotions and challenge the intellect. If you call upon your own interest, excitement, honest concerns, and analytical skills, you can enhance your awareness and understanding while challenging skeptical visitors to shift from wariness into a willingness to look deeper into art and themselves.

Ellen J. Henry is the education director of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA. Ms. Henry has a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Studies from Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University, and is a sculptor. She was recently named Museum Educator of the Year for the Tidewater Region by the Virginia Art Education Association.

Henry, Ellen J. “Skeptical Visitors in the Art Museum,” Docent Educator 2.4 (Summer 1993): 18-19.

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