Short Features

Understanding Art

A New Way of Seeing, with Claudia Horwitz

Photo: George Hixson

When Paul R. Davis, curator of collections at the Menil, asked me to collaborate on a program the exhibition Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences, I quickly told him that I was not at all trained in art history or any of its related disciplines. Yes, at the time I was serving as the Interim Executive Director of the Rothko Chapel, down the street from the Menil, but while I’m not a shy person, I know my gifts and my limitations. Presenting a program at a museum definitely seemed to fall outside them. Paul reassured me that he wanted a fresh approach; one he thought I could bring. Unconvinced but curious, I agreed. Paul’s whole attitude inspired me, and I found an accessible entry point to what proved to be a transformative experience.

The more traditional art viewing I grew up with contributed little to my overall development as a human being. I enjoyed art classes at school and even won an art scholarship for high school students, but understanding art that surrounded me? That was elusive. I would fall into a predictable role of passive viewer and museums made me tired. There wasn’t a clear way to engage my beingness with the intrinsic nature of the work I was attempting to appreciate. Surprisingly, working at the Chapel and getting to know the people and programs of the Menil changed all of that.

Affecting Presence was organized around two powerful ideas. The first frame comes from anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong. It introduces the possibility of a reciprocal relationship between viewer and object. The work itself has an affecting presence, that is, a communicative energy that, in Paul’s words, “continually compels us to respond.” Paul designed the exhibit around this transaction, mixing works from a wide range of cultures and time periods but grouping them around formal qualities and function. Secondly, there is a way of seeing art that emphasizes the primacy of the viewer. This tactic emanates directly from Dominique de Menil, the museum’s founder and patron. She believed whole-heartedly in “delicious experience.” To engage on that level, one needs to be curious, willing to continue looking, absorbing, allowing. These experiences are rarely immediate; they grow over time.

Paul and I developed a program for Affecting Presence, but the flow that we offered during the program has some simple steps that can be replicated easily and can, I believe, strengthen any encounter with art.

I left the Menil with a renewed appreciation, one that took multiple forms. I was grateful to Paul for the willingness—really, the invitation—to experiment with a new form. I was also thankful for all of my years of practice, both with mindfulness meditation and as a group facilitator. Bringing these two areas together allowed for a new kind of engagement with the affecting presence of art and a truly delicious experience.

Preparation. This is an essential and easily overlooked step in the viewing of art. One way is to engage intellectually with the context, usually provided by the venue, and to notice what resonates most. Another complementary way is to quiet the mind and create a feeling of spaciousness simply by paying attention to your breath. This type of grounding yokes us to our own agency.

At the start of the program, we met outside the gallery. Paul introduced the two ways of experiencing art that he built the exhibition around, and I spoke about an approach to art that engages its mystery and our own power of interpretation.

Here are some key questions you might consider: What am I most interested to learn about the work and the artist(s)? What might I do with something I don’t immediately understand? What will help me to make my own meaning?

A Contemplative Stance. A second step is to allow yourself to have an embodied experience, to go beyond the normal ways of seeing art with our eyes and our intellect. How could it become a more full-body enterprise, one that engaged the heart as well as the head? Before entering the exhibition I led a short, guided meditation inviting participants to notice their own bodies as they stood in the space and then to observe their breath. With greater attention to these foundational elements of experience, our knowledge of ourselves grows. This kind of brief connection with a more mindful attention to our current state has tremendous value.

Just before entering a gallery, experiment with taking five minutes of quiet, either sitting or standing. Whichever position you choose, come into a posture that allows for openness and eliminates or reduces any overt tension in the body. Play with keeping your attention on the breath as it moves in and out of your belly.

Viewing Art in Silence. Viewing art is fundamentally personal. We have all had the unfortunate experience of having our art-viewing interrupted by somebody else’s interpretation or theory. If you’re lucky enough to see an exhibit with someone who’s truly knowledgeable this can be a real gift. But even then, it changes the experience to have some time on your own with the show. You might liken this to seeing a movie; who wants their enjoyment of a film interrupted every few minutes with commentary? In the movie theater, we frown upon this because there is an inherent sense that it alters the experience, and not for the better. Once you feel you have enough framing, allow yourself to have your own unique experience.
Revisit What Moves You. At the end of the silence, return to a work of art that captured you in some way—either because it attracted or repelled you. This is a common impulse, to spend additional time in the places/spaces where we have been drawn. We do it with people, with issues, with lots of things. Paul recommends revisiting a piece that one you initially resisted or were even repulsed by. This exercise speaks to a core teaching of mindfulness practice, that we can actually begin to befriend something initially unwanted or disdained by giving it a bit more attention.

Thoughtful Questions. In over 25 years of facilitating and training groups I have found that the most juicy conversations and breakthrough moments begin with provocative questions. For the Affecting Presence program, Paul and I came up with the following questions which we think will help any art-viewing experience:

What did you notice about your encounter with this particular work? How did you receive it? What, if anything, was different than how you are used to experiencing art?
What is it about this particular work that moved you? How would you describe its energy?

Imagine you could take any or all of these questions with you the next time you go to a museum. They might usher in a new level of internal or external conversation.

Unexpected Dialogue. After people spent some time with the questions, we regrouped and invited a sharing of reflections. The dialogue that followed was quite meaningful. If you are with someone else, you can explore this kind of conversation with them. Or, you might write about the experience afterwards.
Hear from Curator Paul R. Davis about the exhibition and from Menil Contemporaries who experienced it in this new way.
Claudia Horwitz is the former interim executive director of the Rothko Chapel. She is the author of The Spiritual Activist: Practices to Transform Your Life, Your Work and Your World (PenguinCompass, 2002) and numerous articles, she and has been a Kripalu yoga teacher for 15 years. Claudia founded stone circles at The Stone House, a nonprofit organization and retreat/training center in North Carolina, to support the integration of spirituality and justice. She supports the pursuit of social justice and liberation as a facilitator, trainer, teacher, writer and friend.

Related exhibitions

Jul 17 – Nov 8, 2015
Main Building
Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences