Friday, March 2, 2012

Viewing art

"Art museums have become pointless: they should learn from Christianity" states Alain de Botton in a recent ABC religion and ethics program.

His point is that:
  1. art museums have become our new churches
  2. art has become revered and in doing so displaced a role that religion used to serve
  3. but neither the art nor art museums are providing church functions as places of consolation, meaning and redemption
He therefore suggests that art museum curators should set aside the ‘high’ interpretation of art accessible only to the elite, and help the visitor to access works of art in a way that they can help us get through life.

He sees Christian art as being aimed at teaching us how to live, so that pictures of Mary at the foot of the Cross teach us tenderness and courage and images of the Last Supper train us not to be a coward or a liar. As an avowed atheist de Botton, in my book, is missing the point of Christian paintings (namely that they are all about the message of Christ), but his point is an interesting one, namely can secular art teach us about life values.

First up we need to know how to look at art, and I refer you to a previous blog of mine on this issue citing Kenneth Clark’s methodology.

Setting aside the truism that art speaks to everyone in a different way and that no one reaction to an artwork is more valid than another, how then can art be used?

I am in the midst of a review of university museum collections and it’s fascinating to look at how some of them are being used beyond just a primary source of knowledge. University College London has just started an object based learning course using the UCL’s unique collections as a primary focus and encouraging a process of interrogation, research, documentation and presentation to develop research and practical skills.

Both Harvard and Oxford expose their medical undergraduates to art as a means of enhancing their powers of observation.

But perhaps Barbra Streisand in a moment of considerable clarity should have the last word: “Art does not exist only to entertain, but also to challenge one to think, to provoke, even to disturb, in a constant search for truth.”

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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