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The Hidden Theme: Viewing Art through Western Eyes

Because there is little else that one can do with the objects displayed in art museums besides look at them, such museums imply that all objects in their care, regardless of their initial uses, are valuable primarily because of their visual interest. This visual bias, which is at the core of art museums, is distinctly Western or Eurocentric in origin, despite its claim to universality. Docents in art museums usually teach people how to look at art, thus inadvertently mirroring the biases of the institutions in which they work. Often they sense that there is a mismatch between the content of their teaching and the interest of their audience, but they don’t know what to do about it. Understanding how our looking and teaching is informed by our “hidden Western bias” may help resolve this tension.

People reflect the cultural values and habits of the environment in which they were born and raised. Museums, created by many individuals working together over time, manifest the cultural assumptions and resources of their creators regardless of the culture or cultures that they attempt to represent. Art museums exhibit certain types of objects that are generally acknowledged to be art. Although the objects in art museums come from many different cultures and times, they are all exhibited in very similar fashion — in cases, on pedestals, on walls, with dramatic lighting and scant written information. Art museums highlight the similarities between these objects, that is that they are all beautiful or compelling visually. Other types of museums, ethnographic museums for example, strive to represent cultural specificity and therefore emphasize the differences between objects, not their similarities.

Philosopher Richard Anderson {Calliope ‘s Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art. Prentice Hall, 1990.) identifies four different theories that make up Western aesthetics: the mimetic, the pragmatic, the expressive, and the formalist. Mimetic theories discuss how art objects imitate the real work whereas pragmatic theories emphasize the functional aspects of art, requiring that art make some sort of contribution to society. Emotionalist theories focus neither on the material nor the social world but rather on the psychological realm of inner experience and the feelings of the individual creator and audience. Finally, formalist theories emphasize the existence of “significant form,” asserting that art is valuable because of its “formal qualities” such as, for example in painting, the painter’s use of color and composition. Anderson characterizes the four theories as a vocal quartet with one part carrying the lead while the others sing in harmony. In the twentieth century, formalist theories have “carried the melody,” playing an essential role in the institutions of art: art history, art criticism, and art museums.

Formalist aesthetics informs much of the way art history was taught from 1950 to about 1975 when many people who are now docents learned it. The emphasis was on seeing how significant form varied over time to create stylistic development. Art history was often taught as a linear progression of styles and practices that culminated in the leading styles of the present. Major artists, as well as major monuments of art, were emphasized, while little emphasis was given to artists whose styles did not fit into what was considered to be the mainstream. Museum collections are ordered along art historical lines in that objects are arranged in roughly chronological order based on particular periods or schools.

Docents who teach in art museums are generally trained in the language of art history. Even though they quickly discover that art history cannot be taught in a brief tour or lesson, they nevertheless follow the order that the museum imposes, which is an art historical one. Especially when teaching adults, docents talk about artists’ lives, their techniques, and their importance to the development of particular styles that are deemed important in the history of art. When teaching about non-Western art, where the individuality of the artist is not emphasized, the main content is still derived from art history books that divide the art into significant periods and styles.

Another approach to teaching about art that reflects the formalist bias of twentieth-century Euro-centric aesthetics emphasizes the formal elements of art objects. This approach emphasizes the importance of reading a work of art as a conglomeration of colors, shapes, lines, and textures. While the art historical tour, with its emphasis on periods, styles, and artists works especially well with adults, the formalist tour with its stress on the basic elements is ideal for children. The formalist way to teach about art, when it was first introduced, was actually a great boon to museum education because it allowed museum educators to argue that anyone could be taught to look at art. This optimistic philosophy was applied with great creativity in museum teaching and is still much in use today.

Getting Beyond Colors, Shapes, Lines, AND Textures
So what, if anything, is wrong with teaching about art along art historical lines or stressing the formal elements of art? Nothing really, except for the fact that these two approaches are mired in the hidden theme of Western formalist aesthetics. If we recognize that art is not a universal language, easily understood by anyone who can see, but rather a complex phenomenon deeply rooted in a particular cultural system, we can actually improve our ability to communicate the essence of art.

Beginning in the 1970s, art history began to feel the impact of the Civil Rights and the Women’s Rights movements as artists of color and women began to notice and complain about the absence of their own kind from the history books. The “great masters” approach to the history of art came under attack as did the formalist aesthetic that justified only a very few types of works as significant masterpieces. The Euro-centric vision of the evolution of art from Egypt, to Greece and Rome, and culminating in European art, began to seem rather stilted in light of the highly evolved, ancient cultures of China, India, and Africa. A more pragmatic aesthetic began to compete with the formalist one, stressing the function of art in society and its role as symbol and communicator.

Museums, too, came under attack. Artists began making works of art that could not be contained by museums or galleries. Earthworks, performance art, conceptual art were all very popular art movements of the 1970s and all intended to critique the institutions of art. The notion that the museum was a neutral space for the contemplation of art was exposed as a myth by some artists while other artists began to question the formalist tradition that art was detached from politics. Community groups began calling for more representation, demanding exhibitions and installations that more accurately reflected the diversity of the community.

In this atmosphere of change, formalist approaches to art are not just old-fashioned, they are seen as belonging to the more exclusionary. Euro-centric museum of the past. But how can one get beyond the restrictions of the environment in which one teaches, which, as I pointed out at the beginning, is infused with the visual, art historical, formalist biases? Getting beyond color, shape, line, and texture may not be very easy, but it is possible.

One method is to reorient one’s thinking about what is important in the interaction between the docent and the visitor. Teaching is only as good as the learning that it inspires. An effective docent is not judged by the information she is able to master, but rather by her ability to inspire her audience to understand what she is communicating. If instead of thinking of the docent as a conveyor of information, we think of her as a facilitator, we shift the authority from the docent to the visitor. Color, line, shape, and texture are not important in and of themselves, but rather as tools to help visitors make sense of works of art. The process of making sense involves being able to relate works to our own experience. A docent can encourage this process by helping visitors begin to question the why’-s and wherefore’s of an artist’s practice. Instead of asking directed questions that lead visitors to see what the docents want them to see, docents should consider asking more, open-ended, philosophical questions that can lead people to ponder the effects and meaning of a work of art.

In addition to teaching about stylistic development in the traditional, art historical way, docents need to examine works of art as artifacts that had a particular cultural significance different from the one they currently hold in the museum. Because the museum was not the original context in which many of the works of art which are currently housed there were displayed, docents need to inform themselves about the original settings and uses of art objects. Escaping the hidden Western bias is as simple as making it evident: acknowledging that museums are just one context, out of many, for art.

Traditional tours may need to be examined and revised so that a more inclusive, more multi-cultural focus can be introduced. Instead of just following periods and styles as laid out by the museums, docents might experiment with organizing their lessons along broadly thematic lines that can appeal to diverse audiences. For example, a tour about the human figure in art can include African, Chinese, as well as European art, whereas a discussion of the uses of art throughout time can combine a large variety of objects into one lesson. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we have begun offering art history courses with a multi-cultural perspective, focusing on a particular period in time but looking at art from around the world. All of these methods can work in tandem with traditional tours and courses, enriching the museum’s offerings.

Docents should also be aware of and sensitive to, the need to include a large variety of objects on their tours, including objects that may fall out of traditional art historical categories. Reminding visitors that artists may also be female, African- American, Jewish, and so forth is a way of acknowledging the contributions of people who are traditionally less visible in the museum setting. Finally, docents should play a more aggressive role in being visitor advocates within museums, which are still slow to change their focus from being repositories of great masterpieces, to being community-based, cultural and educational centers.

Danielle Rice is Curator of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Prior to this, she served in the same capacity for the National Gallery of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum. Ms. Rice earned her B.A. at Wellesley College and her Ph.D. from Yale University. Ms. Rice authored an article entitled “Questioning Modem Art” for a previous issue of The Docent Educator.

Rice, Danielle. “The Hidden Theme: Viewing Art through Western Eyes,” The Docent Educator 3.1 (Autumn 1993): 8-9.

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