Ai-Ling Wu, Lin Ding, MC Gayoso…
Ai-Ling Wu, Lin Ding, MC Gayoso…
Ai-Ling Wu, Lin Ding, MC Gayoso…
The Yayoi Kusama Selfie Chamber
In 2015, the LA Magazine said the following about Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room”: “two things are certain: long lines and lots of selfies”. This is exactly what we saw when we went to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden last week. I remember that when I was about to go into one of the rooms, the lady at the museum told me to “enjoy your show” and “you can take as many pictures as you want in the room”. When I was in the lines, I saw people sharing selfies they had taken in the rooms with their friends or families. It seems that everyone who went to the show has selfies in their digital devices. However, because of the time limit, a lot of people failed to get an ideal photo within 20 seconds and I saw several people waiting in line multiple times to have another try. Or maybe they just wanted to experience the show for another time. Kusama probably did not think that her mirrored rooms would be “the selfie-happy installation” (Frank).
Kusama’s exhibition invites viewers as participants to enter an immersive environment, where they will have the opportunity to experience Kusama’s unique perspective. Taking pictures, for example, selfies, can be seen as a way of participating and self-performing in the exhibition. But selfies are never entirely about selves, they are performances showing different tastes, lifestyles, and wishes on social media platforms targeting nodes in their social networks. People wish to share their sense of humor, interesting adventures, and beauty within these social networks. For those who witness the performance, their decision of going to the same art event and taking selfies during the exhibition is likely to be influenced by other’s self-performance. One evidence for this argument is the popularity of articles teaching people to pre-setup the cameras before entering the room and finding the best angle for selfies. This idea is similar with Kusama’s artistic aims. In the 1960s, Kusama once told an interviewer that “We become part of the unity of our environments” (Frank). We too, become part of the environment when we are standing at the same spot and taking selfies from the same angle.
Selfie of Katy Perry
Adele has extended the room to a new performance experience, combining one of her songs with the subsequent music video recorded in the room on the stage at the Brit Awards. She explained that the idea of seeing different angles of oneself in the mirrored room falls into line with her song “When We Were Young”, and she likes seeing things in herself and noticing things she has never seen before.
For the performance of “When We Were Young” at the Brit Awards, Adele sang in front of an elaborate set of panels displaying twinkling footage shot in Yayoi Kusama’s highly photographed Infinity Mirrored Room
The fact that both celebrities and everyday people take selfies in these exhibits reinforces the fact that they can inspire anyone. Walking into these rooms encourages you to open your mind and just experience the moment. But they also encourage you to capture the moment. As stated before, selfies abound in Kusama’s mirrored rooms. Figuring out how to parcel your time in these rooms can be a challenge? Do you just walk in and snap as many photos as you can? Do you record your experience in the rooms? Do you refrain from photos all together? This thought process is now part of the Kusama experience, one that I think is pretty unique. Instead of scorning selfies as part of some self-obsessed culture, these exhibits encourage selfies as part of the performance. Everything you do in a Kusama room is part of the performance because you cannot escape yourself. Your reflection is infinite.
(Left: Here, the selfie is not the main focus of the picture, but it is still an important part! You cannot see MC at all, but you can see her phone there, in the center of it all. How different is this installation without the image of the phone in the middle? The phone becomes part of the art, itself…)
Kusama is engaged in a never-ending mission to release the microcosms within herself to the outside, in order to project it on the macrocosms and the infinite space to which our imaginations do not extend. By facing up to this endless mission, Kusama herself is also elevated to the status of eternal being, who is a speck of dust in the universe. She has a bird’s-eye view of the entire universe. It is her infinite consciousness that transcends the time, generation, gender, region and culture, as well as the various vocabularies of contemporary art. It is also the reason Yayoi Kusama is so well-received around the world — and the reason why the force driving her is like an eternally bubbling spring.
Yayoi Kusama Herself is an Artform
Kusama is an Japanese artist that can be attributed to many different terms from the 1950s to 1960s, including “pop art”, “minimalism”, “conceptualism” and “abstract impressionism”. Through her exhibition “Infinity Mirrors” in the Hirshhorn Museum, I not only understood her works as a fixture of these various artistic style, but also felt the strong emotions and ideas about love and fear, life and death from Kusama. Kusama’s art world is so unique that it makes me recognize her paintings, sculpture, videos, and infinity rooms as different extensions of her body and minds. In a word, Kusama herself is an art. In her own words, “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. (Kennicott, 2017).
Kusama applied different artistic medium to create conversations with the audience. Curator presented many Kusama’s photos, videos, personal items to the audience which made a strong connection between the artist and her artworks. This representation is totally different from the Toulouse Lautrec Collection we have visited before which focused more on the artworks themselves rather than the image and description of the artist. The design of Kusama’s exhibition enhanced the sense of immersion.
For example, the “Violet Obsession”—sewn and stuffed fabric over row boat and oars which is surrounded by violet light and repetitive picture of the artwork on the walls, floor and ceiling, referring to Kusama’s wry commentary on the phallus as a symbol of virility and power. I was impressed by the work’s occupation or possession and felt that Kusama transcend her fear through art. Highlighting the identity of Kusama allowed the audience associate the artwork with artist’s life experience in a easier way. Besides, objects on the boat “seem to have been overtaken by a horde of alien creatures. They announce their independence from human use while exuding a visual and tactile magnetism” (Smith, 2017). In my opinion, I found the work resonates with some ideas from pop art that “the pop artists strove for ‘objectivity’ embodied by an imagery of objects. The impact of Pop Art was enhanced by the mundane character of the objects selected” (Laurie, 2011). Phallus and boat, these two objects seemed to have no connection with each other. However, Kusama combined them together like the pop artists did in collages. She endowed the objects with new and deep meaning which represented her spiritual world.
Yayoi Kusama, Violet Obsession (Photo by Ai-Ling Wu)
Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field showed the dialogues between Kusama and the audience. Kusama later recalled how she had imagined people “wandering into this infinite wonderland, where a grandiose aggregation of human sexual symbols had been transformed into a humorous, polka-dotted field” (Applin, 2012). I was impressed by her magic of mise en abyme and repetition which allowed me feel this sense of humor in a more immersive way. Kusama’s soft sculpture and infinity mirror rooms also reminded me of the quotes from the Minimalist artist Robert Morris “Every external relationship, whether it be set up by a structural division, a rich surface, or what have you, reduces the public, external quality of die object and tends to eliminate the viewer to the degree that these details pull him or her into an intimate relationship with the work and out of the space in which the object exists” (Terry, 2011). However, the technology seemed to become noise between the conversation between the audience and Kusama. During the period of “20-second infinity”, nearly 15 seconds were spent on taking photos by me. In fact, I devoted more time on watching two-dimensional picture rather than the three-dimensional installation. The conflict between the technology and art facilitated me to think that is it more appealing for the audience to share pictures of art with other people through screens than to feel the art with their soul through five senses in modern days? How technology affect the interface between the audience and art has become a critical question for curators and artists.
Discussion of Group Project
Our group project will compare Japanese pop art with anime and manga art. This comparison does not imply one is better or worse than the other, just that there is a difference. Different forms of art have varying levels of cultural capital. What makes something fine art? What makes something commercial art? We argue that it is the reception community that defines what art is. It is not so much the art itself, but who is consuming it. Anime fans and pop art collectors will both pay handsomely for different types of art. We will explore how these fans and collectors assign meaning to different works.
Currently, we are in the process of collecting links, references, and visual images for our project. We want to have around 6 image, 3 related to pop art and 3 to anime and manga art. We will display these images in a way that prompts the audience to answer the question, can you tell which genre each of these paintings belongs to? Pop art or anime/manga art? What even is pop art and anime/manga art? We will explain these terms to the audience and guide them through the process of looking at the communities that consume this art rather than at the art itself. Our conclusion will most likely be, art is whatever the art world says it is. Anime and manga does not need to aspire to be like Japanese pop art or prove itself. These two art genres have their own merit and make their own meaning. The issue of price, however, and which genre generates more revenue, is another issue… but it is almost impossible to compare these two genres since they are so different. Still, we are going to try!
(Note the similarity in pose and aesthetic here, but one is pop art and the other is a commercial anime figurine)
(Left: Chiho Aoshima- Pop Artist/ Installation View / musee art contemporain lyon, 2006 “Rinko-chan on the building” 2005, Right: Holo Figure from the anime Spice and Wolf)
Chiland, Elijah. “Watch Adele Perform Inside LA’s Most Instagrammable Room”. 2016. Retrieved from http://la.curbed.com/2016/3/1/11144922/adele-broad-museum-infinity-room-brit-awards.
Frank, Priscilla. “Selfie Obliteration: How Yayoi Kusama Invented The Photo-Friendly Art Show”. The Huffington Post. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/yayoi-kusama-selfies_us_562687ede4b08589ef493823.
Celebrity photos from Instagram
Chiho Aoshima pictures from Pintrest
Interview of Adele’s choice of infinity mirrored room: Adele on Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room at The Broad museum
Jo Applin, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field. London; Cambridge, MA: Afterall Books, 2012.
“Kaikai Kiki Gallery” http://en.gallery-kaikaikiki.com/2010/07/works_chiho_aoshima/
Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
Philip Kennicott, An exhibition of the beloved Kusama with everything but Kusama herself, The Washington Post, 2017
Roberta Smith, Into the Land of Polka Dots and Mirrors, With Yayoi Kusama, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/arts/design/yayoi-kusama-infinity-mirrors.html?_r=0
Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents. New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 2011.
The Edinburgh Camera Obscura
Before I compare three different photos, I want to talk about the time I saw a working camera obscura in Edinburgh, Scotland. The summer after my freshman year, I went on a trip to England and Scotland with my university’s theatre program. I am not an actor, but I do like theatre, and I like travelling. While in Edinburgh, my professors encouraged us to just wander around the city, alone or in pairs. I went with a small group of students to something called the Camera Obscura. It was the name of a tower full of optical illusions, art pieces, and, at the very top, an actual camera obscura that could show you a bird’s-eye-view of the entire city. I remember the guide saying that one of the lenses was cracked and they didn’t know how to replace it.
That was a few years ago. Now we are talking about the camera obscura and its use in art. The Buckingham book talks about artists who wanted to hide the fact that “they used mechanical aids.” It’s interesting to me that artists have always been afraid of being judged for using technology. Even now, I witness arguments about what “real art” is, and whether using certain computer programs is considered cheating. Putting science and art on opposite sides of a spectrum created this tension. For some reason, we need to justify applying technology to artistic endeavors.
Learning more about the camera obscura helps close this gap, I think. Using technology to make art isn’t cheating, and anyone who think so is extremely misinformed.
But that’s another argument for another post.
Photo Comparison and Exploration
Let’s start that photo comparison, shall we?
Woman at a Mirror, 1856, half plate (4 1/4″ by 5 1/2″)
Collection of Matthew R. Isenburg
This photo from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is an example of a daguerreotype. The site description of a daguerreotype really sums up the genre:
“Daguerreotypes are posed images. And because so many of their makers are unknown, and their subjects cannot be identified, we become reliant on the autonomy of the image itself. Portraits such as Woman Writing Letters are signals of some larger meaning: a lover’s secret message, a public announcement, the description of thought. They embody the subject of communication itself, which survives the lost context of the making of these images.” (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
What especially interests me is that these pictures were posed. The context of the image is not as important as the subject. The audience is encouraged to make their own meaning when looking at these pictures. When you look at this picture, you can see a lot of things. A woman evaluating her appearance, a woman not caring to evaluate her appearance, a woman contemplating her upcoming night on the town, a woman tired from a night on the town… this image could mean a lot of things. But the magic of the daguerreotype is we will never know the true context of this image, and that’s okay.
People bad mouth selfies and selfie culture a lot, saying that they are somehow disingenuous, but what if we compare them to daguerreotypes? The main characteristic of this genre is the fact that they are posed. Selfies are also posed. Yes, they are more spur of the moment than daguerreotypes, but they are still posed. The original context of a selfie may be lost, but it can still “embody the subject of communication itself, which survives the lost context of the making of these images.” Even though the process to make a daguerreotype is extremely complex, an art unto itself, the result could be considered similar to a selfie.
Overall, this image presents an interesting look into a context we will never truly understand. Who is this woman and what is she thinking? We will never know. But this style of photography, the care needed to create and sustain it, tells us something about the photographic subjects.
Studying photographic styles and genres is an important part of understanding how we make meaning of photography. In her book, Wells says that you can either “disregard theoretical debates, taking no account of ways in which images become meaningful, thereby limiting critical understanding and, if you are a photographer, restricting the depth of understanding supporting your own work,”(Wells 3-4) or you can take the study of theory seriously.
The Interrogation of the Zodiac Killer
What genre is a news related photograph? What does the genre, the context, the way it was photographed, and the way it is circulated tell us about the photograph itself? When it comes to news related photos, one of my favorite things to talk about is the “accidental renaissance painting” concept. BuzzFeed even has an article about this phenomenon:
The picture I want to talk about is this:
Reuter’s Jason Reed took this photo in late 2016, and it soon became a meme. The details of when and where this photo was taken are surprisingly hard to find. There is a Reddit thread about it, a Tumblr dedicated to this so-called “Ted Cruz aesthetic”, and countless comments about how Renaissance-esque this picture is. This is a news photograph, taken to inform, not necessarily to entertain or become a meme. It was circulated on social sites like Reddit and Tumblr.
When I think of what genre this photograph is, I am tempted to just say news-related image or something like that. But it is an accidental Renaissance picture as well, fitting both the Fibonacci Formula and the Golden Spiral. These phrases are kind of tropey, almost artistic clichés, but that doesn’t change the fact that this photograph fits them perfectly. Here we see photography take on a painting-like quality. It is compared to an art movement, which is interesting, to say the least.
It’s also important to note how people view news-related pictures. Wells sums up these views well, explaining how people value certain types of photos more than others:
“However, nowadays, in according authority to pictures, we are more likely to question the circumstances under which photographs have been made, their source, the status of the photographer and the purpose for which an image was made. For example, we might view pictures uploaded by local people documenting an incident or set of circumstances as more authentic than images authorized by a company or political organization” (Wells 18).
Especially nowadays, people are questioning where they get their news. This photo is not particularly controversial, but people still want to know who took it and why. Tumblr tends to only promote material that is labelled as “organic” or “not connected to a major corporation,” which is ironic considering Tumblr itself is a corporation. Tumblr likes homegrown memes untouched by corporate hands, which is why they circulate odd artifacts like this image. Very interesting…
The Dressing Room Otaku
Personal snapshots are also interesting. Here is one I recently took:
Some context, I took this at the GAP about a week ago. Someone drew this anime face on a changing room stall, I saw it, and just had to send a picture of it to my friend in Florida. I sent it with the caption, “look at what some weeb drew in the GAP.” So I sent this to my friend in the same way that I send them memes. (Once again, my meme obsession is obvious)
The genre of a personal snapshot is kind of hard to define. This is not a still life, a daguerreotype, etc. I would say this is more like an example of “the photograph as document” (Wells 18). Like the Ted Cruz picture, this one documents a specific instance. This is not a posed shot, but rather a documentation of something that happened in my daily life. It is not nearly as interesting or monumental as that Cruz shot, but it still documents a spontaneous moment in my life.
I only briefly touched upon these three very different, very disjointed photographs. There is so much to be said about photography in general, it is hard to know where to begin. I hope I have made some sense. If not, here is a picture of a painting I took at TJ Maxx the other day, interpret as you will…
Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.
Gordon Baldwin and Martin Jurgens. Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms, Revised Edition. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.
Liz Wells, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2015.
For this week’s post, I want to talk about three things: memes, photographs, and anime. Without context, these concepts seem disjointed and irrelevant. I’ll be honest, they are, but I will try to make sense out of this jumbled mess of ideas, starting with the importance of context.
A big theme I got out of the readings for this week is context. Context is one of my favorite things to talk about relating to forms of cultural expression because the lack of, or overwhelming amount of, context determines what said expression means.
Memes and Context
Take memes, for example. Internet memes can be interpreted through a myriad of frameworks or interfaces. If you’re like me, and see internet memes as a form of Neo-Dadaism, you can interpret them in this way. I think memes capture that escape from the “realm of the ‘beautiful semblance,’ which for so long was regarded as the only sphere in which it (art) could thrive (Benjamin 261). There is nothing bourgeoisie about a meme, unless a capitalistic company takes hold of a meme (I’m looking at you, Denny’s Tumblr) and uses it to make a profit. Internet memes like doge, “take me to snurch,” “what in tarnation,” “the signs as…,” or whatever else are totally homegrown, organic memes that spring up on the internet and become a kind of cultural capital. To interpret memes, you need to create a framework, a kind of theory, to mediate them.
Memes are mediated through a variety of cultural lenses. The digital interface that relates the meme to the viewer, the screen, is just one part of this mediation. Your location, your exposure to other types of media, and your sense of humor play a role in how you interpret a meme.
Why am I going off on memes? First of all, I love them, I think they are simply brimming with semiotic possibilities. Second of all, since many of these articles bring up the concept of mediation, I wanted to talk about a form of cultural expression that, while mediated through cultural lenses, is not really mediated through any mediums other than the internet itself. Artists and critics cannot seem to agree on how to mediate or interpret art, and I think meme fanatics like me cannot agree on how to mediate or interpret memes, either. What constitutes art is a complex and tired debate, so I won’t go there, but I do think memes are a nice example of why context is important to understanding art.
Ants on a Grape Vine, Flies on a Flower Stem
Photographs are another art form that require context to be fully understood. Dr. Irvine’s article says that, “Photographic reproductions can only provide decontextualized, dis-associated views of artefacts isolated from complex and widely differing cultural functions” (Irvine 3). I find this to be a very interesting statement. I was at the NGA over spring break and saw a painting called Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Jan Van Huysum. I stared at it for like fifteen minutes because I realized there were tiny insects hidden in the leaves, petals, and stems of the painting. I tried to count them all. I took a picture of the painting to save for later, but when I looked at the photo I could not see any of the ants, centipedes, or flies I saw before. Maybe my camera quality was just bad, but I know that the painting did not look the same on my camera as it did in person. Many people need photographic representations of famous works because they do not have the privilege to see them in person, and I respect how valuable a photographic reproduction is, but I also understand what Dr. Irvine means. Things like scale, color, texture, and detail, are often lost in images. I am just happy I am lucky enough to live so close to places that house these great works of art…
Understanding the values and limitations of photographic reproductions is vital to interpreting art. You need to know that a photograph is fundamentally different than a three-dimensional work of art. Both are valid cultural expressions, they are just different.
Virtual Reality and The Wired
The last thing I want to talk about is anime. How does this fit into this discussion? It really doesn’t, but I wanted to talk about it. The Bolter-Grusin article mentions a fictional VR device called “the wire”. I could not help but compare this to the Wired, a fictional digital network from the anime, Serial Experiments Lain. In both instances, you have a virtual world that seeks to engross you, the player. In this anime, the Wired is a dangerous and addictive place, as are most fictional VR-like devices. In fiction, things that are “denying the presence of the medium and the act of mediation” (Bolter-Grusin), like VR technology, are usually characterized as kind of sketchy, or even outright ominous. I agree that VR tries to deny this presence, but I do not see this as a bad or good thing. McLuhan’s famous cliché “the medium is the message” is an important part of this conversation. VR is a medium, whether it likes it or not. I can say from personal experience that VR makes you forget that your experience is mediated. You feel 100% involved in the action, but at the end of the day, you can see the headset in your peripherals and you know that this experience is mediated. Understanding how VR mediates experiences is an important part of understanding VR itself. Games designed for VR are a new, unique kind of art form. The way VR mediates a gaming experience and a traditional console does the same are very different.
Just try playing a game called Super Hot with VR and without it, you WILL see and feel the difference. Different devices mediate Super Hot in different ways. Playing Super Hot on a PC is way different than playing it on the Oculus. Actually thrusting a blade towards someone is different than pressing a key to do the same thing. Looking up and seeing a gun pointed at your head is different than turning the camera and seeing the same gun. Interpreting these mediums is important to understanding how we as people engage with them.
This entire post is a little disjointed, but it describes how my thoughts are right now. I find these readings to be extremely thought-provoking, and I am anxious to talk more about them…
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility“ (1936; rev. 1939).
(From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.
André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000. Excerpts from the Introduction and Chapter 1.
Lin Ding, Ai-Ling Wu, MC Gayoso
Our group was drawn to different aspects of Lautrec’s work. From the bold prints to the use of space, the subject matter to the Japanese inspiration. In our post, we discuss some of the pieces we love and why…
By: Ai-Ling Wu, Lin Ding, Mary-Cecile Gayoso
Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound, approx. 15 x 40 x 4 feet (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Our group took an affinity to the Paik pieces. Their size, color, and imagery is truly amazing. But why do we feel this way about the two works we saw at The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery? And what is going on, both historically and semiotically, when we see these pieces? Our group looks at how Paik’s own history, our interpretations of his art, and historical context plays a part in how we make meaning of these artworks.
John Frederick Peto’s Take Your Choice (1885), currently found in the National Gallery of Art, strikes me as a treasure trove of semiotic description, an ultra-meta painting that contains stacks upon stacks of meaning. Of course, any painting I choose to describe is a “treasure trove”, Take Your Choice is not unique in this way. But there is something about this piece that I find truly interesting. Maybe it’s the subject matter, the colors, or the way it’s framed, but for some reason I want to talk about this work of art. I first saw this piece in November 2016, on a visit to the NGA. We briefly passed by it during our class session at the museum. Below, I will attempt to describe and interpret this work based on the terms and concepts that were in some of our readings. If my attempt is too terrible to read, just look back up at this lovely photograph of the painting and forget you ever read it…
John Frederick Peto, Take Your Choice (1885). Oil on canvas.
Morse’s House of Representatives depicts a quintessential American image where a man lights a candle in the middle of the House floor. Even though we can appreciate the painting online, it is totally different to see the actual painting on canvas in the National Gallery of Art. It is hard for us to imagine the actual size of this painting when we see the painting for the first time online. The large canvas enabled us to imagine that we are standing inside the House of Representatives and acting like a witness or observer like Morse. It feels like some senators in the painting are watching us when we see the painting at a specific angle. This experience provided us an opportunity to travel across time and space, feeling the atmosphere of the House of Representatives in the 19th century. Only the interface of the museum allows the audience to have such an immersive experience. The build of the room, the lighting, and the decor are part of this interface. The sofas in the exhibition room not only allow visitors to have a rest but also create a space which permits visitors to spend more time appreciating paintings in a more comfortable way.
While we enjoyed viewing this painting, we want to talk more about the NGA as a whole, as an important institution situated on the Washington Mall.
When looking at the National Gallery of Art from the outside, it is hard not to notice the architecture, the way it stands proudly in the middle of the Washington Mall. Its neo-classical architecture echoes with the sentiments of the old masters. Just by looking at it, you know that great works of art are to be found inside. How do you know this? The symbolism of the architecture, of course, the images of majesty, elegance, and elitism that it evokes. In the Alexander article, Mark Lilla is quoted as saying, “The museum is an “empowering” institution, meant to incorporate all who would become part of our shared cultural experience. Any citizen can walk into a museum and appreciate the highest achievements of his culture. If he spends enough time, he may be transformed” (Alexander 1). This is a very idealistic image of the museum, one that is not always translated into reality.
For example, Alexander explains that “The museum idea was barely kept alive in western Europe during the Middle Ages” because of the elitism and wealth associated with the collection of artifacts (Alexander 5). Crusaders stole artifacts and put them into the collections of the wealthy. Lilla’s idea of a place where any citizen can enjoy these artifacts was dashed during this time. It is important to remember that museums have not always been these bastions of culture and learning. For many years in western Europe, this kind of education and culture was reserved for the elite.
The NGA’s look reminds us of this elitism, yet it is not an elitist institution like the private collection of some European noble was. The NGA juxtaposes a classical look commonly associated with high-culture with accessibility. The McClellan article says, “the mission of Washington’s National Gallery of Art “is to serve the United States of America…by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art” (McClellan 19). This is a noble pursuit, one that seeks to educate rather than restrict.
Placing the NGA among other museums fosters a feeling of community between them. The Smithsonian Institution was established for “Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world” (Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian). NGA is a critical part of this network of institutions near the U.S Capitol. Even though the NGA is not part of the Smithsonian, it feels like it is. We’ll be honest and say that for years we thought the NGA was part of the Smithsonian. Is this a problem? It depends on who you ask. If we view museums as places to spread knowledge and interest in science and art, maybe it doesn’t matter if we know what building is part of what institution. But if the history of the NGA, and the other museums on the Washington Mall, is vital to our understanding of the artifacts within, then maybe it is imperative we learn about this history.
Overall, the NGA and the Washington Mall represent the foundations of America, the desire to spread knowledge to the masses, without discrimination. The Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol bookend the Mall, one a symbol of freedom, the other, of democracy. Now whether or not America was really built on these sentiments or currently lives up to them is up for debate, but as an idealized image, an almost miniature of the country, the NGA and Washington Mall send a clear message. McClellan says, “After 9/11 the rhetoric of hope and the power of art to mend a divided world have been revived. And museums have also become refuges of authenticity and affect in a society dominated by mass reproduction, media saturation, “reality” television, scripted photo shoots, and sound bites” (McClellan 16). The museum serves as a “soothing environment removed from the complexities and pressure of contemporary society” (McClellan 10). When looking at the function of a museum, we must ask ourselves whether the museum is designed for public education and enlightenment or for creating a space which is isolated from the outside world for people to appreciate beauty and human spirits.
The NGA is both of these things, a place for education and aesthetic tranquility. It is classically designed, evocative of a bygone era where masters painted great works, but it is also accessible to the masses, for the most part. Though we must remember that “where art and museums go, gentrification follows” (McClellan 10). We must take into account the critiques of the museum, and of the NGA, and be wary lest these public places become elitist once again.
The NGA is part of a larger network of museums. There is a network of museums in D.C., where each museum is highly connected to each other, and represent unique themes or functions. Located between third street and fourteenth street, most of these museums belong to Smithsonian Institution.
Take Morse’s works and his achievements as an example, they are separately reserved in different museums and institutions. We first heard of Morse because of his achievement in daguerreotypes and prototype telegraph. However, he was originally a history painter whose ambitions were to “advance a strong national art for the Americans” (A New Look Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre). We can feel his passion for art and his aesthetic taste from his paintings, like The House of Representatives we saw last week, and Gallery of the Louvre. When we enjoy The House of Representatives in National Gallery of Art, we can easily notice his excellent drawing techniques, especially for the portrait of people in the painting. This is due to Morse’s earlier practice as a portraitist, when he sought financial support from the portrait business. Currently, his work of Self-Portrait is reserved in the National Portrait Gallery. Also, Morse was elected as president of the National Academy of Design in New York. One may ask, why did he abandon his art career? Because of a lack of financial success, Morse ceased painting and moved to daguerreotypes and prototype telegraph. We now can see his first prototype telegraph and other early telegraphs in both the Smithsonian American History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Thus, only by connecting them and seeing them all in one picture can we understand the value of Morse’s achievement in a larger ground.
The National Gallery of Art completes the collection of museums, or should we say that it fills the gap of Smithsonian museums in the art field. Before the National Gallery of Art was built (in 1937), there were several Smithsonian museums, including Smithsonian Castle (built in 1849), Arts and Industries Building (built in 1881), National Museum of Natural History (built in 1911), and Freer Gallery of Art (built in 1923). Few of their collections concerned the national image of American art, which is the theme of the National Gallery of Art. The NGA provided a place to celebrate American art, something that no other museum of the era was focusing on.
The history, location, and symbolism of the National Gallery of Art tells us something about its place in society. The NGA, together with the other museums on the Washington Mall, forms a complex system that supports and sustains the timeless value of these collections. The Washington Mall represents the ideal structure of America, mixing education with accessibility, art with scientific enlightenment.
“Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian.” Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian. Smithsonian, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
Alexander, Edward P. & Mary. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.
McClellan, Andrew. The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
National Gallery of Art. “A New Look Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre”. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxfe3nz80i2GZ0FlWWZORVpWZkk/view. Web. 2012.
Image 1 from Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:National_Gallery_of_Art_-_West_Building_facade.JPG
Image 2 from Dr. Irvine’s link to Washington Mall Map