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Joachim M. Plotzek
Art for All – But Even More For The Individual
Reflections About A »Visitor-Orientated Museum«
It might be one of the possible goals of a »Visitor-Oriented Museum« to suggest the vision of complete care for the museum visitor as the optimum situation. This would be a taking-care-of which would be identified with the pragmatic fulfillment of visitor demands, expectations, the wishes and the different interests and responding to them with rich and diverse information. The blooming and the multiple usages of technical possibilities of information in art museums and exhibitions are the fruit of such efforts, reflections, project developments, and modifications of realization. The latter have been embarked on for the steady flow of new exhibition proposals, the planning of new museums, and for a number of decades have been and will still be undertaken within the scholarly community of art historians. From time to time – indeed in the balance of the givens in the offerings of »art« and the ambition to satisfy the wishes – these attempts are congruous with the strategies of leisure time marketing whose goal is the most complete taking care of a guest during the time of the booked vacation. Everything or at least the vast majority of things have been pre-thought (and considered), and all the leisure-time-individual needs to do is to cash-in her / his vacation experience – neatly roped-off within tightly defined parameters – which within the specifications is a calming and riskless holiday adventure leading to (a well-researched and thus already known) well-being – i.e. the individual must function within the givens.
Before the background of such attempts and intentions of visitor-oriented caretaking within the museum which is sketched here in a rather pointed way, it might transpire that imagining and demanding a situation in which a visitor is surrounded by nothing but art and consequently totally abandoned without accompanying sources of information would be seen as utterly frustrating, old fashioned, and naive. Such a state of affairs is incidentally met with precautions in almost any larger exhibition in as much as – almost exclusively before entering the exhibition galleries as such – sleuses of information are installed, regardless of their technical rendering. They are intended to be a priori introductions to what is to follow, mentioning biographical data about the artist in a retrospective, time history in a theme show, and many more things. Visitors experience such stations for the transmission of knowledge as preludes and exercises which have been assembled by specialists and which they accept as binding for what is to follow. This is done as though the subsequent art experience could not be endured without it. The spectators may even believe that the encounter with the art – take for example a painting by Matisse or the figure of a Gothic Virgin – could not be sustained without biographical knowledge or the acquaintance with historic facts. It can be observed that such information galleries are appreciated and willingly accepted by visitors because, as we all know, an understanding of art is considered difficult – and this is particularly true if the spectator is inexperienced. There are also cases in which the exhibits are deemed inaccessible – especially if containing somewhat unusual artistic modes of expression – and the reaction to follow is extreme reluctance or not to deal with it at all. Thus, one remains in these information centers for as long as possible. Most particularly if the information is mounted in hall ways, stair wells, and narrow passage ways leading to the galleries, this almost inevitably leads to congestions in the anticipated flow of visitors which is due to the different speed of reading and the individuals' condition. Such a placement of information also signals the low regard for such parts within an exhibition. It reveals the dilemma of a half-heartedness that goes back and forth on the insights related to the needs for information versus the larger gallery spaces, attributing to the information galleries the status of an alibi and ultimately putting the goal of experiencing the art as intensely as possible above the rest.
But how about if – as an educational insight – especially the visitor who is left alone with the art is given – through this state of affairs – the ideal prerequisite for an encounter with art? I am stressing the word prerequisite referring to such a state of affairs as optimal and at the same time the only sensible point of departure of any art experience, and this is even before the first verbal information reaches the spectator.
Any perception of art begins with the senses. One hears, one sees, smells, tastes, and touches, one does whatever it takes to grasp the other one with the senses' perception in any first encounter. However, as Paul Valéry says, »seeing means to forget the name of a thing one sees.« This refers to an unprejudiced, exclusive seeing, a seeing which comes before terminology and the definition of things, through which they are recognized and determined. It means an intuitive, »pre-intellectual« perception with the alertness and the spontaneity of the senses, before the ratio gets involved with questions about meaning and content, with researches into the personal knowledge and memories. A perceptive experience in the carefree space of the senses is a prerequisite and at the same time the only point of departure which makes sense in an encounter with art. – And to go even further: It is especially in this instance that there ought to be no space for information regardless of what their nature might be. This is a result from the principle experience of the insurmountable clash between the words and what they refer to, between the world of language and the world of objects. It is also based on the understanding that it is impossible to bring together an object and its name in the sense of authenticity of prerogative and reality with the virulent and interactive zone remaining between them. The artist Thomas Locher, for example, has described this zone as a metaphor for human nature; and especially into contemporary art itself it has long since become absorbed.
It is in such prerogatives alone that the artists' constant hope and intention of reaching and touching the viewer with their art may be fulfilled. This will only work, however, if no information or interpretation is put between the art and the viewer; if nothing is abbreviated or channeled, whereby the artistic intensity is diminished, for example as a result of verbal negotiation or by an educational mission in an attempt to make comprehensible.
The next step within pursuing the experience of art which is being broadly outlined here is the stream of associations which is activated rather quickly and which is hard to control. Dependent on imagination, emotions, momentary moods, and the individual's personal history as well as influenced by the ambiance of the locality, the flow of associations is unpredictably and increasingly superimposed over a specific object while viewing it. Associations and personal memories are linked, suspicions are awakened, a reflection about issues comparable or known begins, leading to past experiences and to questions which might be followed by answers and which might also remain unanswered with the option of a later recognition, connections are made, variants are debated and repeatedly examined and compared to the initial object and related back to it. Joseph Marioni, an American representative of the so-called Radical Painting states that: »Painting by its nature is a fairground of loneliness.« This is true for all art and also for the spectator, especially if – as the spectator – one understands art as an opportunity for a dialogue to relate to art with all one's possibilities which are indeed individually different. »The viewer is in the image.« This expression of a process of understanding which has become quite well known also implies that a viewer with all the limitations but also in the uniqueness of his perceptive and intellectual constitution is part of a painting. This is true if he agrees to bring his perceptive abilities to a dialogue with the painting and thereby creates reality. Robert Rauschenberg, in his object Pilgrim, offers the visitor a chair, thus suggesting to take a seat in a figurative way and to participate in what is happening in the painting. This request is aimed at the individual with the knowledge that only the individual by his willingness to be open towards the other side and that he will profit – not by virtue of different, prefabricated points of view – from the confrontation with his vis-a-vis. That he will be enabled to be touched by and to experience the intensity of art. This can only be derived in the immediate way and can by no means be experienced by virtue of a defined verbal intercession. Such a request is thus never addressed to a group which in this formation remains an anonymous body of experience which might possibly be bringing similar intellectual or suggestive backgrounds and which might therefore be guided. However, on the level of sense-related perception with all of its resulting experiences, such a group is bound to react heterogeneously, hence individually, i.e. respective to the make-up of its individuals.
The becoming-aware and the acceptance of the own individual history contain the true paradigm of each individual's art experience, which is identical to the artists' stipulations. This is the boundary of the neighborhood in which the prerequisites of the creative artist have a tangent with the viewer who is determined by the width of his phantasm, his memory, his powers of imagination, the desires and expectations, the extent of his knowledge, and the power of his intellect. All of the above happens regardless of how small or manifold, how limited or boundless the viewer's abilities may be present in him.
Once is has become clear that the involvement of the individual as part of the encounter with the work of art is a fundamental necessity in order to benefit from the art experience offered in the museum, it is imperative to find means for realizing this type of dialogue. This means that the tasks of a »Visitor-Oriented Museum« are making themselves more precise – and this is in contrast to the initially simulated notion of a caretaking that aspires to possibly fulfill all desires – by creating the requirements for such an art encounter. What are these requirements like? I would like to bring them to your attention before the background of a case study of the Diözesanmuseum in Cologne. By doing so I am attempting to transform the previous thoughts into the realm of pragmatic possibilities of realization.
Let us turn first to the situation of the individual visitor. Knowing his course of action – which may be perpetually observed – of turning to the label in order to get an initial piece of information about the work of art and thence – if at all – quickly make a visual inspection of what has been absorbed by reading about the piece and then to peruse the object itself. In being aware of this routine the Diözesanmuseum principally abstains from any object labeling, be it for special exhibitions or in the presentation of its permanent collection. At the same time, however, we offer a brief guide to each visitor – for special exhibitions as well as for our own collection. It has the shape of a fifty-page »admission ticket« and comes in a pocket-sized format so that it may be tucked away. Each time it is taken out it enables the spectator to read some essential facts about the exhibition or the permanent collection, and it enables the visitor to obtain important information about each piece exhibited. In addition to that, there are work sheets with more comprehensive texts available, featuring essays relating to the individual artworks and adding a broadened and in-depth survey.
Our intention is thus to present and to make the visitor aware of a certain chronology within art appreciation. At its beginning stands the unlimited perception of art which is not yet channeled by information. This is the opportunity to make discoveries, to arouse curiosity and to pursue it with all senses and in total spontaneity. The result will neither be a normative nor a pre-programmed experience – as provoked, for example, in audiotours which are manipulating the experience into being identical for each visitor. Instead the individual givens of each visitor will be permitted to develop freely. This is done in order to give an opportunity to the visitor to make progress and so that he may – through bringing himself to it – gain true experience, come to an individual understanding, achieve a being-touched as the initiation into art. It is hoped that he may not be satisfied with a mere secondary understanding of the pieces of information absorbed by his brain in order to apply them in front of a picture – as an imitative act of acquisition.
Our experience it this matter is the following. For one thing, the situation with exhibited works of art without any commentaries results in irritation, leading to insecurities with the inexperienced museum visitor. Stemming from this results at the same time the indirect confirmation that labels do convey a calming knowledge to the visitor, indeed even before the encounter with the work of art has begun. The uncertainty, the notion of not securely knowing something, is one of the best prerequisites imaginable for exploring something unknown or strange because it can at the same time be some stimulating ferment for a multifaceted and open questioning. One of the essentials for this is, however, that the visitor's irritation – the visitor knows that there is no guidance and feels left to his own resources – shall not lead to an unwillingness on his part. Measured-up against the presently practiced understanding of experiencing adventure through encountering unexpected and risky elements, the above-mentioned even appears to contain a quality well worth achieving.
As we have experienced over the last few years in the Diözesanmuseum, the first reactions to the unusual means of encountering art may be disappointment, unwillingness, and a turning away, hence a lack of good will pursues. The less familiar and the more alien and by implication the more »incomprehensible« a work of art presents itself vis-a-vis the spectator – and in such a case labels which mention the name of an unknown artist and contain the note »Untitled«« are not of any help either – the more likely is it that the reaction may range from anger and resentment to – as we all know – aggression against the art. The latter is also a variation of being directly affected. Because of the inherent confrontations with the unusual and the strange, looking at art may consequently result in a situation comparable to the everyday process of inter-human relationships. As is known, the numerous newly founded Children's Museums – especially located in socially weakly structured urban environments and primarily to be found in English speaking countries – try with plenty of success to bring to the surface in children and teenagers the multifold mechanisms of aggression vis-a-vis art. They try, furthermore, to develop means of overcoming those mechanisms of aggression, which is a special and particularly rewarding aspect of museums with a dedication that is oriented towards the visitors. The »accompanying«« information – kept in one's own pocket and offering the opportunity at any moment to be consulted initially by the discouraged visitor who may want to inquire what others, for instance different specialists, are thinking – may in this case result in tranquillity and it may be utilized as an encouragement for a renewed turning to the work. Other experiences made clear that our means of presenting works of art have been welcomed as a particularly good opportunity to make truly idiosyncratic experiences even in encountering the unknown and that this ultimately broadens one's own identity. People stating the above include either more experienced individuals or such museum goers who – upon a second visit or thanks to word-to-mouth-propaganda which is highly effective in Cologne – already know about our concept.
One of the prerequisites a »Visitor-Oriented Museum« would have to convey concerning the potentially willing visitor's encounter with art would be the fact that the experience within the museum becomes increasingly intense, enriching and ultimately rewarding if he brings patience to it and the willingness to encounter something unknown. Courage is needed, too, in order to be open – with all one's own limitations – in relationship to a counterpart and in order to establish a dialogue-like connection; the curiosity needs to be kept awake and the senses ought to be utilized in a cognizant manner. The visitor must learn to trust his own vision and his subjective sensation as the point of departure for perception; he must withdraw from accepting the suggested »being-a-minor« in art matters while he questions himself in his own fantasy, in his memories, experiences, and expectations, in his ability to think. All of the above may be initiated and directed by impulses generated from a work of art. This means that the visitor ought to realize all those time-intense prerequisites which – within the plethora of information and the velocity of information which must be processed every day and which quite pragmatically dominate a specific life-style – represent the utmost contradiction to what presently prevails. The visit to the museum and the encounter with art would then become an antagonistically effective and thereby a questioning regulator for the mechanism of the customary reality.
How is it then possible to direct people who should, must, or want to function in this reality to such patience? How can they be guided to develop the above-cited characteristics? Artists would say by virtue of the works' intensity which takes hold of the viewer, making him think or touching him. They would argue that it is the power of fascination which seduces the viewer to remain longer and to contemplate. And they would propose that it is the works' radicality which »bugs« us and which poses questions, provoking us to formulate our own opinion and which initiates us to get our bearings in the other, in the vis-a-vis. This means that both a spiritual and a real space need to be created in which the experiment of »zooming-in-on-it« can take place. It necessitates offering a playing field for perception and reflection, a forum in which perceptions and patterns of thought may initially be formulated and developed in a playful fashion – i.e. with great openness in reference to feeling and thinking – and only in a later stadium would they be reflected with further information.
By using such a procedure the presentation of art is attributed the greatest importance. Due to the indisputable effects of the quality of architecture on society, the architecture of the museum should be like this: The individual gallery would have to be conceived as leading to the art and not as leading around the art. The character of the space should thus not be dominated by many wide corridors or by a monotonous flow of rooms which during a walk through them might possibly barely animate the spectator to take even a superficial notice of the artifacts but certainly would not invite to standing still and concentrate as a requirement for a dialogue with art. In such a space one would have to feel comfortable; not because it would have the atmosphere of a living room but because its proportions, the lighting, the choice of materials for walls, ceilings, and floors, and their colors invite us to stay longer. The number of glass cases and the choice of objects in them, their placement and the inherently associated interrelationships should be conducive to wanting to remain there, because the newly constructed ambiance is filled with stimulations, arousing curiosity and welcoming an entirely individual, playful pursuit of free associations which are largely dependent on the viewer's own situation. This entails as well the choice and the sequence of the works of art which the visitor takes into consideration and which ultimately – for whatever reason – leads to a prolonged or an abbreviated observation. During a special exhibition of illuminated manuscripts with medieval Books of Hours and Psalters which took place in the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne in 1987 some of the visitors remained leaning over the showcases for hours in order to explore the beautifully viewable books with their diverse decorations. This was not least due to the fact that the vitrines had been specifically constructed in order for the viewers to be able to lean on them, which proved hardly tiring at all. The manner in which the great treasures of the Vatican Library were presented in the Diözesanmuseum in 1992 resulted in a comparable sensation of »well-being« because – also in a relaxed physical position – it was possible to achieve a great sense of immediacy in experiencing the valuable illuminated manuscripts by virtue of a closeness which had been realized. This led to a repeatedly observed exchange of discoveries between visitors who did not know one another. It was by the way also during this special exhibition that each visitor was given a fifty-page admission ticket which could be consulted whenever desired.
I do not want to elaborate on this any further; yet even here it becomes clear that a museum which is defined in such a way – as far as its dimension of adventure is concerned – does not want to be a place for diversion and entertainment in the sense of spectacular amusement parks. Instead it wants to offer a variety of possibilities for artistic statements and discourses as proposals for content or meaning. In addition, it would be absurd and ridiculous to apply the criteria of entertainment which are valid in amusement parks – and which there can be seen as appropriate stimulants and as enlarging the frequentation – to art museums. Although sometimes it appears that this is what underlies the understanding of culture within municipalities, where it happens that the sponsor expects the goal of museum work to be that of amusement parks.
One of the stipulations made by the Diözesanmuseum – and which belongs to an intense experience through proximity and immediacy in the encounter with the object and the animated light design – is the changing dramaturgy of densely filled gallery spaces in which for example various medieval figures and paintings of saints would suggest the denseness of the saints' heaven – i.e. the multilayered veneration of saints in that time – by utilizing artistic solutions. One could also visualize a history of piety in reference to the veneration of the Virgin with the help of the many different types of the Madonna, including those inspired by richness of ideas, and among them the theological, mystical, typological, eschatological, symbolic, allegoric, metaphoric, and the personal piety. One could, furthermore, conceive of rooms in which an individual work of art in isolation and intended for a certain duration only would provoke an encounter, or the juxtaposition of a few objects might invite to a »zooming-in-on-them.« Evidently, particularly such places within the museum require seating possibilities as part of the condition which might enable such activities and which might guide into room qualities which are inviting to remain within them. This might also be termed a suggestive precaution. In our case the prerogative is to make the visitor sensitive for that kind of naturalness and openness with which in other places – and there it happens without any didactic arrangements – he listens to a concert, reads a book, or sees a movie.
In the Diözesanmuseum in Cologne such a presentation is also used as a confrontation with works of art from different time periods. We go beyond strictly art historically oriented concepts in order to be able to compare and to contrast artistic goals and discourses independent of their time of creation. I might add that this is being done with quite some success as far as the reactions of visitors and the imitation by other museums are concerned. Such a mode of presentation which is more directed towards the history of ideas is often capable of raising the level of awareness for peculiarities which are art-immanent. In addition it enables to point out the qualities of objects despite all the time-and personality-related difference of those objects which were brought together for the sake of juxtaposition. Thereby a level of experiencing art is reached in which interpretation cannot be experienced by virtue of the explanatory word but through the art itself. Therefore it can indeed be imagined that, for the purpose of juxtaposition, included into such confrontations might be a poetic- or a literary text. In this case, the text would not function as an object label, but it would be a work of art in its own right, originating from a different genre. It would be added as a lucidifying, comparable and artistic statement. In the end such constellations do already occur frequently in concerts with partly newly composed works which specifically refer to objects or in fact the individual site in the Diözesanmuseum. This is an artistic reaction to art as a means of an exemplary approximation by seeing, reading, listening – and this might also be stimulating for the visitor. The approximation is in fact also entailed due to the building site of Kolumba for the new museum which was chosen quite deliberately. This is exemplified by the fact that artists who have been invited make very intentional references to the visible and numerous archaeological documents of the big excavation zone with its complex historicity spanning almost 2000 years. Among the many different reactions acoustic »operations« are featured. In all of this the artists address the uniqueness of the site and of the objects as well.
For a number of years we have been changing such confrontations with new questionings every three months. This can for example happen if an object which has been presented for a while inspires new vistas with newly added objects or even with the same object itself. This process of experience which we have been calling with the by now fairly well known title Wiederbegegnung mit Unbekanntem (Renewed Encounter With The Unknown) – and this title is only seemingly contradictory – has meanwhile led to a remarkably increased number of visitors to the museum. The question »What is it that has led to initiating a dialogue between them now?« »Does this move me as much this time as it did the last confrontation?« and many other questions are leading an increasing number of people to short yet frequent visits in the sense of topical, examinational orientations. Some of them come here with their questions during their lunch hour. In general it can be noted that this type of vivacity and actuality of a collection with a limited number of modifications and exchanges leads to spontaneous and natural visits which are very much an integral part of the daily reality. By the same token, museum visits, if they are official and planned over a longer period of time, often fall by the wayside, and certainly do not happen with this type of frequency. One further encouraging argument for the spontaneous visit is the fact that the Diözesanmuseum does not charge admission (with the exception of big special exhibitions). What underlies this decision is of course an understanding of education – and also for the institution offering education – as an individual dimension of society. On the other hand the no-admission argument impacts something as seemingly peripheral as the psychological effect – especially of a high admission fee – that it has on compelling the visitor to »take everything in«, while indeed what counts is in fact only the intensity of a few encounters in correspondence with the individual capacity for experience and intake.
Such an understanding of a visitor-oriented museum – which offers as its level of introduction not primarily the passing-on of already existing insights but which proposes a dialogue to those visitors who are curious and who are prepared to approach with patience and in an individual encounter the museum's unusual offerings – entails that the museum, in the case of group visits, comes across a further extension of its possibilities. The Diözesanmuseum of Cologne does not offer any group visits. As may be deduced from the above, we do not offer any guided visits with »tour guides« – human or technological – who, in a one-sided flow of information, convey art and thereby substitute the missing objects' labels. Such an approach would undermine the principle of experiencing the works which is to precede the process of rationalization. Consequently, guided tours in the traditional sense would fall back to the commonplace principle of conveying perception – prior to the act of appreciation – to those visitors who have not yet been initiated. Instead of this we offer communication in the form of dialogues in this museum. This is a way of orientation in which each participant is encouraged to share in what has been said about the individual. That which characterizes the traditional guided tour – and this is also true for computer terminals regardless of how accomplished and full of variants they might possibly be – i.e. the presentation of a collection, the mentioning of masterworks, art historical explanations and dates about artists' biographies, and many other issues which might be imparted in a written, a digitized, or in any other way – all of the above remain peripheral ingredients of such communication. If they are a part at all, they only come into the game at a later stage. Our dialogues are fueled by spontaneous impressions and the resulting questions of the individual participants. The goal is to explore the wide range of turning points and the possibilities of experience for the individual person. This process is not to be pre-determined in a rigid fashion.
If, for example, one visitor experiences in the Diözesanmuseum's work Traces on White Ground by Antoni Tàpies of 1965 a conceivably intense pictorial metaphor for the search for meaning which is placed around an open, not further recognizable and distinguishable center, then, possibly, another visitor might sense that the circular movement of human footsteps within the restrictive rectangular picture confines represent an externally acting, threatening restraint which prohibits a development or an escape. These are two situations of experiencing one highly precise but at the same time also necessarily open work of art as perceived through the individual personality structure of two visitors, who – by virtue of perception and by questioning themselves – bring themselves to a confrontation with a work of art heretofore unknown to them (one remembers: the viewer is within the picture). The »leader« of such a dialogue has – because of his presence and because he can be approached – the great chance to initiate repeatedly the above-cited pre-requisites for such an experience of art, i.e. patience and the preparedness to zoom-in on an unusual, even alien vis-a-vis with all of its consequences. This is how the »leader« can indeed be active as the conveyor of art. According to the definition offered by the Grimm Dictionary this means to place a connecting center piece between two occurrences. In other words it means to retain a bridge on which an encounter between the visitor and the work of art may take place.
It would lead too far to include in this presentation the dimension of the concept of the Diözesanmuseum's collection with its contending ramifications. And it is not necessary either. Hopefully it can be seen clearly that in the Diözesanmuseum art is scrutinized in reference to its possibilities of presenting reality. We want to question artistic positions and juxtapose them to the ecclesiastical sponsor, representing the art as visualized offerings which are charged with meaning. We are representing them as specifically rendered points of view of a possible reality – because what else is art after all? – which we interrogate as part of a dialogue with Christian ideas. What underlies this is the understanding of art as a »concrete utopia« in the sense that it has been defined by Ernst Bloch. This means a possibility of creativity which Walter Warnach – on the occasion of a paper presented for the founding of the Freie internationale Hochschule für Kreativität und interdisziplinäre Forschung e. V. (The Free International University for Creativity and Inter-Disciplinary Research) which had been initiated by Joseph Beuys during the documenta # 6 in 1977 in Kassel – described: »to gain from reality the real possibility ... of being active, of acting in such a manner that the historical and society-related movement is absorbed here and now and that it is advanced by some steps.« Experiencing art as a process of perceiving the other. This is not just to be realized as a concept of a different yet conceivable reality but at the same time personified in the personality of a specific person. Behind this stands, therefore, also an understanding of the viewer as a perceptive individual who is bringing himself to it and gets involved in the broadest political sense. This presupposes an individual who is aware of the experience of the »non-deletable reality of the other«, as Walter Warnach put it. This is an experience of the »turning-to-me of another individual who – simply because of his specific otherness – reveals the possibilities which are hidden in me to myself. He reveals, furthermore, the experience of a quarrelsome confrontation in which it dawns on me that I
Art museum of the
Archdiocese of Cologne
A museum in alterity (2009)
Art for All (1995)
Museum of Reflection (1995)
History of the Museum (1995)
Art and Architecture (1994)
Idea and Task (1994)