Song of Experience

Why the Times’ screed against fun in art museums is out of touch with what makes contemporary art great.

Maho Kawachi takes in the Manhattan views from Phase II of Big Bambu on Aug. 16, 2010 at the Met

Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Readers of the New York Times Sunday Review section this weekend were greeted by Judith Dobrzynski’s piece ”High Culture Goes Hands-On”—an argument against “the quest for experience” at art museums. In case readers didn’t get it, the piece was illustrated with an enormous yellow drawing of patrons picnicking on pizza while sitting on the famous ancient Greek discus thrower sculpture—and tossing a basketball into Munch’s Screamer’s mouth. The message was clear: Letting these yahoos have fun is ruining our art museums, which no longer offer an escape from the world’s constant “assault” of “endless opportunities and activities.” But Dobrzynski’s piece is just the latest in a long line of anachronistic screeds that have appeared for as long as there have been art museums, and maybe for as long as there has been art, bemoaning the current state of affairs. New “experiences” in art museums, the Dobrzynskis have always groused, aren’t as worthy of contemplation as good, old-fashioned objects.

Those not in the art world may be unfamiliar with this tiresome cycle, but trust me: There has always been a plaintive cry of “What’s happened to the good old days?” at key moments of progress and change in museums. You may remember, going back in time, these old favorites:

“Who the hell let video into my museum?”

“Since when is photography considered art?”

“Abstraction? My kid could have painted that.”

Or “This is the 1860s. How dare you show Impressionism in our salon, monsieur!”

Arguments like Dobrzynski’s are staked on the assumption that museums are monotheistic temples of one kind of art. Hence her assertion that the kind of participatory, social art practice that has been appearing in leading-edge contemporary art museums for a decade or more—and much more recently, at MoMA, the New Museum, and the Met, which she cites—is crowding out, or even replacing wholesale, the traditional experience of quiet contemplation that she associates with meaningful museum experience.

Of course this isn’t actually true. Both kinds of art—objects and experiences—can co-exist. But as Dobrzynski should know, this is hardly a groundbreaking proposition. No less than John Dewey pointed out, way back in his 1932 lecture “Art as Experience,” that it was a mistake to think of art only as an object—a painting, a sculpture, a “thing.” Rather, art was also an experience, and that both the experience and the “thing” were mutually reinforcing and equally important. I repeat, in case you missed it: This was 1932. This should not be news.

As the director of a contemporary art museum and sculpture park outside Boston, I can tell you that no museum’s program is as monolithic as Dobrzynski seems to imply. The kind of quiet contemplation of objects she favors has its place in contemporary museums, and so does experience—sometimes even experiences that might seem on first glance frivolous. My museum shows  both beautiful objects firmly rooted in artistic tradition—like Jaume Plensa’s marble sculpture Humming—and has an audience that cherishes those objects deeply. At the very same time we have a summer exhibition of exactly the kind of participatory installations Dobrzynski deplores, called “Work Out”—including a project by the social practice artist Fritz Haeg that involves farming a garden cut out of our parking lot, and a “Tree University” conducted by the west coast collaborative Futurefarmers in which our visitors are making pencils, products, and a canoe from a fallen tree to link art, production, and environment.

We have found that one type of art does not cheapen the other. (No one is eating pizza on our sculptures, for example.) Some of our audience appreciates both; some favor one over the other. But unquestionably both are contemporary art and both are equally important for us, as a contemporary art museum, to present. Contemporary art is one of the few means we have of seeing ourselves as we truly are—and I’ve often found the best contemporary art is that which both mirrors and smartly subverts our particular moment and wider culture. Right now our developing culture is technologically obsessed, a bit self-absorbed (as our thousands of tweets have been saying; don’t you follow us?), fascinated with spectacle, and particularly—for better and worse—experience-oriented.

Will every audience member who participates in an experiential project at an art museum—be it Martin Creed’s balloons, Carsten Holler’s art slide, or Marina Abramović’s “be-in” at MoMA (in examples cited by Dobrzynski)—“get it?” Will they all have a deep and meaningful art experience? Will they come away changed? Of course not. (Some just want to play with balloons or climb in a bamboo tree house.) But then, neither will everyone who stands and contemplates a more traditional painting or sculpture.

But, and this is the key: Some will. Just as the boundaries of our culture and world have expanded exponentially in the past decades, our art and our museums have expanded to keep pace. It’s foolish to say that one type of art—object or experience—is better than the other. Why would, or should, museums, or our visitors, be forced to choose? The Abramović project was but one of 40 (40!) exhibitions MoMA presented in 2010; it took up an infinitesimally small amount of MoMA’s massive physical and intellectual footprint that year. And, I’d argue, it made all of us richer for it.

Besides seeming to believe that museums shouldn’t be ecumenical in showing contemporary art, this is Dobrzynski’s other mistake: She seems oblivious to the shifting sands of time, technology, and human experience. Art history is chock full of objects that were once revered as masterpieces, as the apogee of artistic achievement and utterly reflective of their particular moment. And then that moment passed. Time marches on, culture and humankind change for better or worse, and which artist or what object will become the “masterpiece” of this age, of this generation, is yet to be known. The very kinds of social experiences, connections, and participation Dobrzynski laments may yet turn out this generation’s “Waterlilies” or “David.” The rest will be sorted out by curators, critics, public reaction, art historians, collectors, the public and the passage of time. That’s what experience tells me.