Monday, January 23, 2012

Art as Interaction

It’s not like I’ve never been to an art museum before, but my visit recently to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) opened my eyes to something I hadn’t been paying attention to before.  The museum was set up for lots of interaction between the patrons and the art.  In the past, I think I’ve thought about art museums as rather “stuffy” places… where you sit quietly and contemplate the art.  But my visit recently was nothing like that.  For one thing, there was lots of noise there.  Not raucous noise or running or loud laughter, but energized, talkative noise, the kind that suggests that people were engaged.  There were people in wheelchairs and walkers, and babies in carriages.  There were people of all walks of life engaged in the art.  One kid in a stroller pointed to a painting and said “baby”!

Checking out the DIA website, they state that their philosophy is that art is for everyone and that learning is a lifelong process.  There were fun quizzes throughout the museum where you were instructed to look for something in the room, like the petals falling out of a woman’s hands.  I imagine those were perhaps more for the kids, but I looked too.  And there were instructional bits where they quizzed you on understanding what parts of the art you were observing were innovative versus more standard.  Art isn’t static and evolves over time.  Not a new concept, but the museum did a good job of showing how that happened.  There were also communications with the art patron about ways to look at art.  You can look at it up close or farther away.  You can pay attention to little details like the brush strokes or details in the picture.  And, you can pay attention to how the art makes you feel.  And, it was interesting to me that they devoted a few rooms in the American section to diversity, both of artists and subjects. 

In my recent experience when going to art museums, I try to pay attention to one piece of art and look at it for a long time to pay attention to details and surmise what was going on in the piece.  I did that with a number of pieces including The Card Players by Richard Caton Woodville.  I’m not sure why I picked that one, but it fascinated me.  There were 4 people in the painting, all of different walks of life.  The older man was in the process of being cheated by the younger card shark.  His servant was behind him, probably powerless.  The German man was there and you couldn’t tell if he was part of the con or perhaps would help the older man.  It was a tense scene.  I noticed lots of details in the room.  And, in keeping with my theme for this blog, I noticed that the paper on the wall in the back said “Theatre” in the title.  I wondered where the painting was set, but am guessing a big city, like New York.

With any kind of art, as with theater, you can be a passive participant and just look at it.  But, the other way to engage in it, is to be an active observer and participant.  That’s true with the theater… the audience is one of the elements of the production.  You never know how the play will be until you have the audience there with you, interacting and reacting.  I guess I’d never thought about it before, but that’s true about painting and visual art as well.

If you haven’t been to an art museum lately, I encourage you to go.  And I encourage you to spend a chunk of time with one or two paintings while there and really look at them, paying attention to the details, the brush strokes, the colors, the subjects, and really think about what’s going on in the painting, and, how it makes you feel.  It really enhances the experience. 


  1. I went with my fiance to the Toledo Art Museum Friday, and enjoyed walking its hallways. I'm not a huge art person, but to see the history and the work was really inspirational. Not to mention the Toledo museum is free!

  2. Hi Mary, When I look at a work of art, I remember that everything that an artist places in the scene is deliberately placed there, much like a stage setting, and adds to the story. I also love imagining what the artist was like, what motivated him/her to paint the scene. Oops, sorry, art student, here!