Author Archives: Fred Ji

Bring It Home–How Participatory Art Connects Audiences to Social Justice Issues

Fred Ji


Art has been playing a growingly significant role in introducing political and social issues to the public sphere. Encompassing a wide range of means and elements, this category of art practices aims to raise critical consciousness and to promote social transformation, and artists have been searching for innovative means to fulfill this purpose. In this research, I will identify how the participatory and interactive installations have changed the landscape of socially engaged art. By examining a few examples, we can look more closely at how some artists took advantage of the participatory approach to augment their message and how these works could make a convincing case for the pragmatic view of artistic value.

What is socially engaged art?

It is never revealed who coined this term at first, and there is never a clear definition of what constitutes socially engaged art—historically, many artists have worked at the intersection of art and social injustice throughout their professional lives, blurring the line between artists and activists, art and activism. 

The most significant attribute that delineates a group as diverse as such is that, for socially engaged art, the subject matter usually intends to address the very economic, political, and social issues that the artists would like to focus upon in their works. There may be multiple intentions for a single project, but it is critical that there is a match between project goals and design. Sometimes the goal is to only generate the awareness, sometimes it means to start a conversation, and sometimes it would be to engage community members to take real actions around certain issue to change the circumstances; regardlessly, socially engaged artists usually spend much of their time on connecting with and integrating into the community they wish to help, educate, and simply share their message with.[1] Like Artist Rick Lowe explains: “You have to spend years developing relationships… It’d be an arrogant disregard of a community to come in and think you can grasp all the complexities of a place in a short time.”[2] While socially engaged artists may be following the footsteps of the historical avant-gardes, like the Dadaists who attempted to “merge” art and life, they do not do so through anti-rational, experimental performances.[3] Instead, socially engaged artists dedicate themselves pragmatically to measurable impact, aligning their art with social work, activism, or technology development at its core.[4] 

For researchers, it is important for us to understand where to draw the boundary around socially engaged art: there are non-art exhibitions created solely for the purpose of educating the public—though they were also curated around a specific social issue, they simply present the historical facts to the audience and expand their knowledge base without overtly propagating the curator’s political ideology. We typically see such practice outside of the art realm: for instance, we see exhibitions as such in places like the African American Museum or Holocaust Museum instead of a proper art museum. Meanwhile, there are also forms of studio art that resemble socially engaged art aesthetically but do not have a social intention.[5]Projects as such are often subject to the public’s interpretation regardless of the absence of artists’ intention. We will not be discussing these two in this essay, though sometimes the lines between them and the more refined category of socially engaged art can get quite blurry. 

Now the question I would like to focus on is: why is socially engaged art can be such a powerful instrument in raising the awareness and even fueling a social movement at large? First of all, like all art, many artists trace their lineage to a very personal and idiosyncratic set of experiences, places of origin, spiritual traditions, mentors and art movements.[6] This diversity of influences and experiences is part of what makes their work authentic, vibrant and engaging; therefore, the message behind such artworks is more likely to resonate with those communities that the artists are trying to establish a dialogue with.  

Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project documents eight asylum seekers’ quest for safety.

Second, comparing to other social or political movements, art, and in this case, socially engaged art, is less selective to its audience. Unlike political or social campaigns, art does not discriminate against you based on your pre-conception. Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) that took place 3 years ago in MoMA was a perfect example of how could socially engaged art embrace audience from different ends of the political spectrum.  In this exhibition, a series of videos that details the stories of eight individuals, who have been forced by political and economic circumstances to travel illegally. The videos featured their own narrations of the journeys they have endured and visually traced them in thick permanent marker on a geopolitical map of the region.[7] Viewers can listen to subjects’ stories and see their hands sketching the trajectories across the map, while their faces remain unseen.[8] According to Khalili, the idea came from philosopher Michel Foucault’s The Life of Infamous Men, as the artist collected an anthology of existences, of “singular lives…which have become, though I know not what accidents, strange poems.”[9] While the topic of refugee/immigration has become such a politically charged issue across the world, the artist simply showed us the power of plain storytelling and how documenting and narrating each asylum seeker journey to search for safety can be universally appealing to the mass audience. Without introducing partisan bias to the viewers, Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project nonetheless illustrated how art could be more effective than traditional political campaigns in terms of getting the message across to various demographic groups.

What is participatory art?

The term of participatory art emerged more recently. In the old times, artworks used to be perceived as some noble object to be appreciated and admired on a pedestal or within a frame; it was to be viewed from a distance. However, as we have walked into the era of modern art, many artists have learned to reject this notion; they decided to physically and intellectually invite the audience into the art itself. Participatory art has its origins in the Futurist and Dadaist performances of the early twentieth century, which were designed to provoke, scandalize and agitate the public.[10] After the 1990s, as more and more artist started to detach themselves from the materiality of the art object, participatory art emphasizes on (or necessitates) the visitor’s physical action, manipulates their sensory encounters, and/or showcases their creative expression.[11] In that sense, the interactive or participatory experience of the audience has become the true object or subject of their works. 

Through directly engaging the spectators’ actions, participatory artists can more effectively connect with the audience’s emotions, easily making their message more relatable. For Khalili’s The Mapping through Journey Project, viewers are no longer sitting at the receiving end; they need to walk towards the big screens and put on the headphone to actively absorb the information. Another example is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun), part of his interactive series. This project was seen as a powerful statement to address the issue of widespread gun violence in the United States. Also hosted by MoMA, this project comprised of a stack of posters, and each poster lists with the name of individuals killed by guns in the United States in one week in May 1989. The poster also gives away the additional details, including images of the victims as well as a few lines about their death—whether they committed suicide or died of violent crimes—all taken from the Time magazine. The design of the posters is certainly unique—drama of these violent deaths is contrasted with the simple, matter-of-fact manner in which they are reported, reducing the dead to a few statistics,[12] symbolizing how people have grown increasingly desensitized to the systemic gun violence in the States and how human lives have been reduced to plain numbers in news reporting. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun) inherits the artist’s iconic approach in eliciting viewers’ participation—the stack of posters, on which the victims of gun violence were printed, was designed to be continually depleted and replenished, as each viewer was invited to take one from the stack.

However, what I would like to highlight about this exercise is, Gonzalez-Torres allows each viewer to take away a poster. Those who did are obliged to having the image reprinted so that the stack displayed in the gallery is always a specified optimum height.[13] Therefore, while the installation was on display, the stack was constantly depleted and subsequently replenished, creating an endless cycle that suggests what the deep problem that gun violence has become in American society.

Moreover, to the point where it pertains to this research, the installation itself was constantly evolving as the audience participated in the distribution process and its life-cycle.[14] The focus is now shifted to the audience’s actions and interactions with the object, as the artist is merely a facilitator of the situation. While no opinion about gun control is directly added by the artist himself, he engages the audience by asking them to be a part of the participatory experience and reflect on their role in this problem. 

Gonzalez-Torres has long been using participation as a means to directly engage the audience to the discussions revolving around AIDS, gay rights, and a variety of government abuses. In this series, he explored the symbolizing aspect of “take a piece away from the pile”, as the installation is essentially removable by the audience. “Untitled” (Placebo), in one installation, consisted of a six-by-twelve-foot carpet of shiny silver wrapped candies.[15] Similar to “Untitled” (Deaths by gun), the viewers’ action contributed to the slow disappearance of the sculpture. Relating to the particular context of Gonzalez-Torres creating “Untitled” (Placebo), this process of depletion symbolized the AIDS epidemic and the loss of his partner, Ross.[16] With no doubt, by asking the audience to personally and actively participate in the process of diminishing the weight of his “partner”, Gonzalez-Torres astutely enhanced the emotional impact by projecting the sense of “loss” onto the viewers themselves.

Where does the participation take place?

The environment where participatory art is set up often matters a great deal on maximizing its impact on viewers. Since participatory art relies on the viewer’s own action to connect with what the artist is trying to communicate, the context can provide key clues for the viewers on how to interpret on their own actions. Ai Weiwei, the famous politically committed artist has demonstrated over and over again how participation can take a significant part in the audience’s art experience. Situated in Alcatraz’s Dining Hall, this interactive artwork, Yours Truly invites visitors to write messages of hope and support on postcards destined for prisoners around the globe who are being unjustly detained for their beliefs.[17] Comparing to Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Death by Gun), Ai’s Yours Truly directly demands viewers to compose their own messages to send to those who were imprisoned for fighting for human rights around the world. 

Located on the island of Alcatraz, Ai Weiwei’s Yours Truly invites visitors to write messages of hope and support on postcards destined for prisoners around the globe who are being unjustly detained for their beliefs. The recipients were selected with the help of the FOR-SITE Foundation’s partner in this project, Amnesty International.

Like Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge, Yours Truly would not have had the same impact if it was situated in a regular exhibition space—not only it would be difficult to facilitate the desired interaction with the participants in a regular gallery space, but the prison-like setting also enhances, if not determines, the viewers’ experience. According to Ai, who was previously detained by the Chinese government for his activism, the reason why the setting of Alcatraz means so much to this project is that Alcatraz resembles the actual detention facilities where the prisoners of conscience are forcefully incarcerated, and the deep feeling of isolation often makes them fear that they, along with the causes they fought for, have been forgotten by the outside world.[18] Ai Weiwei would like to capture this feeling, and immerse his audience in it—that is where the environment of Alcatraz comes into play. While the viewers are asked to sit on the benches inside the old dining hall and write postcards to these political prisoners, the space that surrounds them not only sparks their empathy but also serves as a chilling reminder on what those prisoners had to give up to fight for social justice. While the audience has the total autonomy to decide what they would like to write down on the postcards, the art space where the installation is positioned sets a very clear message from the artist to the viewers.

Postcards collected through the project cycle will be sent to the political prisoners across the world.

The case of relational aesthetics

Examples like Gonzalez-Torres’ and Ai’s widely popular and critically acclaimed projects, have been the subjects of much discussion in recent art theory and have been theorized under several designations. Relation aesthetics, a term created by the famous curator Nicolas Bourriaud, could become one of the theories that perfectly demonstrate how artists can prompt their audience to care more about certain social justice issues through a participatory approach. 

Relational aesthetics refers to the installations and interactive events designed to facilitate community among participants (both artists and viewers). Rather than producing objects for individual aesthetic contemplation, relational artists attempt to produce new human relationships through collective experiences.[19]

For participatory art, artists are indeed focusing on highlighting the human relationships rather than the independent and private space. By doing so, participatory artists can position themselves as facilitators rather than the creators, in which sense they give audiences access to power and means to make a difference. On the other hand, since the efficacy of socially engaged art solely depends on whether the viewers are empowered enough to take actions, adequate on-site participation will provide the positive reinforcement to the audiences that their actions can undeniably effect a real change. It helps the target audience realize that they can take the initiative to either get involved or confront the challenges. From this perspective, integrating the participatory approach into socially engaged art would make it more aesthetically engaging and pragmatically effective.

The opportunities and challenges to maximize the value of socially engaged art

Now we have discovered why participatory approaches are getting progressively popular in the realm of socially engaged art. Entering the digital age, technology sure opens another door for participatory artists as well: audience can now access art in different places through different means, which suggests the way they get to participate in the art are getting more creative and dynamic. One interesting example would be Greg Allen’s digitized work, “Better Read #008: Death By Gun,” which elaborates on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun).[20] According to Allen, the idea was conceived based on the notion that the names of victims tend to get forgotten and therefore reading them aloud is a better way to memorize the people who were killed by gun violence.[21] Allen transcribed all the names from the poster, had a computer read through the list, then uploaded the audio clip to his website. This digital rendition of Gonzalez-Torres’ artwork made sure that people who did not have the opportunity to visit the gallery can still get to participate in the project through listening to the names, even though the action they need to take is now reduced to a single click.

Same for Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project and Ai’s Yours Truly, multimedia content that documented how these projects came to their fruition can now be widely shared across the world. By watching online videos, we can also get a glimpse at what the exhibition feels like and what the artist is trying to achieve through their work. However, we also have to acknowledge the challenges in the face of overflowing information communicated through digital media, and many artists, though possess great artistic talent and skills to work independently, are not fully equipped to assess the artistic values of their works from a more pragmatic point of view. “Our society needs great artists working uncompromisingly toward their singular vision, but these may not be the same artists that are great at achieving social outcomes or working in a community.”[22] We should absolutely try our best to help artists to grow their cultural competency, knowledge on policymaking, and human relational skills at large; at the same time, a more practical approach would be to adopt a rather collaborative method when developing an art project. That means the artists who expect to conduct socially engaged practices should be able to consult with the targeted community along the way, and the community members should be able to provide feedback to the artists in return. This is exceptionally important when it comes to designing a project that anticipates or even relies on the participation of the audiences, which we know now can be the key to amplify the social impact of the given project.


[1] Tate. n.d. “Socially Engaged Practice – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019b.

[2] “Interview with Carolina A. Miranda.” LA Times, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[3] Simoniti, Vid. 2018. “Assessing Socially Engaged Art: Assessing Socially Engaged Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76 (1): 71–82.

[4] ibid.

[5] Frasz, Alexis, and Holly Sidford. n.d. “Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic Practice,” 48.

[6] ibid.

[7] “Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[8] ibid.

[9] “The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. MIT – Docubase. Accessed May 7, 2019. 

[10] Tate. n.d. “Participatory Art – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[11] “Interactive and Participatory Art.” n.d. Art21 Magazine. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[12] “Untitled (Death by Gun) | Gonzalez-Torres, Felix | V&A Search the Collections.” 2019. V and A Collections. May 7, 2019.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

[15] “Felix Gonzalez-Torres ‘Untitled’ (Placebo), 1991.” n.d. Williams College Museum of Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[16] ibid.

[17] “Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz and the Power of the Postcard.” 2015. Chronicle Books Blog (blog). April 7, 2015.

[18] “Yours Truly.” n.d. FOR-SITE Foundation. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[19] “What Is Relational Aesthetics? Here’s How Hanging Out, Eating Dinner, and Feeling Awkward Became Art.” n.d. Artspace. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[20] “WTF Is… Relational Aesthetics?” 2011. Hyperallergic. February 8, 2011.

[21]  “Better Read #008: Death By Gun – Greg.Org.” n.d. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[22] Frasz, Alexis, and Holly Sidford. n.d. “Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic Practice,” 48.


“A Digital Reboot of Félix González-Torres’s Memorial to Victims of Gun Violence.” 2016. Hyperallergic. June 23, 2016.

“Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz and the Power of the Postcard.” 2015. Chronicle Books Blog (blog). April 7, 2015.

“Ai Weiwei Project on Alcatraz Creates Dialogue about Prison System | KQED Arts.” n.d. PBS LearningMedia. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Better Read #008: Death By Gun – Greg.Org.” n.d. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres. ‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun). 1990 | MoMA.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed May 7, 2019a.

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres ‘Untitled’ (Placebo), 1991.” n.d. Williams College Museum of Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

Frasz, Alexis, and Holly Sidford. n.d. “Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic Practice,” 48.

“Frasz and Sidford – Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic.Pdf.” n.d.

“Interactive and Participatory Art.” n.d. Art21 Magazine. Accessed May 7, 2019.

Pedrosa, Curated Adriano, and Jens Hoffmann. n.d. “HOW 179 POUNDS OF CANDY CAN CHANGE THE WORLD,” 5.

Simoniti, Vid. 2018. “Assessing Socially Engaged Art: Assessing Socially Engaged Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76 (1): 71–82.

Tate. n.d. “Participatory Art – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019.

Tate. n.d. “Relational Aesthetics – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019a.

Tate. n.d. “Socially Engaged Practice – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019b.

“The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. MIT – Docubase. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“The Mapping Journey Project. Video Installation. 2008-2011 – BOUCHRA KHALILI.” n.d. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Untitled (Death by Gun) | Gonzalez-Torres, Felix | V&A Search the Collections.” 2019. V and A Collections. May 7, 2019.

“What Is Relational Aesthetics? Here’s How Hanging Out, Eating Dinner, and Feeling Awkward Became Art.” n.d. Artspace. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“WTF Is… Relational Aesthetics?” 2011. Hyperallergic. February 8, 2011.

“Yours Truly.” n.d. FOR-SITE Foundation. Accessed May 7, 2019.

All that is solid melts into air

Two years ago when I was in Turkey I visited The Museum of Innocence,  a revolutionary concept conceived by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk as he created the space based on his fiction with the same title.  His book tells the story of Kemal, an upper-class man from Istanbul, fell in love with his young cousin Füsun, and decided to obsessively collect everything his beloved has touched. Therefore, the only collection housed inside the museum is of the gigantic amount of seemingly ordinary objects that document this obsessive love and, by extension, remnants of the bygone world in which the story is set in. It was a very different experience from any other museum I’ve ever visited—I didn’t see white walls, famous artworks, or rare antiquities. In his personal manifesto, Pamuk confessed that he is “against precious monumental institutions being used as blueprints for future museums”; instead, museums should “explore and uncover the universe and humanity of the new and modern man”—just like novels, they should speak for individuals. I interpret his statement as somewhat a criticism on the institutionally of museums: museums in the future should remove its own limitations and readily become “of people, by people, for people”. 

However, let us take a step back and ask ourselves: why are we still going to museums anyway? I never really thought about that question before taking this class. Simply because history and art are fun to experience? Sure. But as so much technological progress has enabled us to see art whenever and wherever we are, why are we still going to the Smithsonian on a Sunday despite metro’s sporadic weekend hours? Indeed, though many functions of museums are no longer confined within their physical spaces, people still go to museums for something that is not so effortlessly accessible, something so mesmerizing about those white walls and seeing those famous artworks and rare antiquities in person: I believe museums have equipped us with a certain mindset of experiencing and appreciating art, and the point of creating museums is to help people preserve and nourish such mindset. As art could easily lose its meanings when we switch its context, museums grant us a well-constructed safe space to discover this set of meanings on our own. So much so that we do not see art at all once we step out of the museums. 

Now let’s go back to Pamuk’s point. While we can certainly celebrate the concept of building a museum that tells the personal stories of individuals—as a matter of fact, we should expect the subjects, the curators, and the audiences of museums to change constantly throughout the time; we can argue whether online, digital museums are eventually going to take over the place of traditional museums. Nonetheless, it is forever going to be a quest for us to cultivate our ability to interpret art whenever, wherever, however we see it. Thousands of cigaret butts smoked by the same woman mounted behind plexiglass have their meanings, while thousands of random cigaret butts scattered across the streets in Istanbul do not—or maybe they do, depending on the context. The question is and will always be, as the boundaries of “what constitutes art spaces” are slowly melting into the thin air, are we still all carrying our compasses with us to explore the uncharted territories ahead? 

This, too, shall pass

Historical events have always been a popular subject of art. We have seen how Delacroix romanticized the spiraling chaos in The Death of Sardanapalus; we have seen how Goya unequivocally hailed the martyrdom in the The Third of May 1808; and of course we remember the distressing illustrations of terror overflowing in Picasso’s Guernica. The reason why these paintings are so compelling is not they merely recreated the stage based on reality, but because they all sought to connect us, the viewers, to the message that the artists much strive to convey and magnify. We see them as tales visually retold by not just “what happened there” but bold use of colors, rapid brushstroke movement, heightened light contrast, underlying rules of composition, etc.

In that sense, Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge is such a transcending piece that he employed a unique approach to present the scenes of this bloody Civil War battle. As he introduced his method, he is an artist who paints with paper, cardboards, ropes—materials we can easily find around our garage, basically. Without using paint to alter the appearance of these elements individually, he layered them and positioned them against each other. However, the most fascinating part of this creative process, in my opinion, is to choose what is left underneath to reveal; simply by looking at the final product, I can’t stop imagining Bradford’s process of creating it, and I can’t stop thinking how this process parallels so closely with the concept of human history—things happened were forgotten, things were celebrated then disparaged, things were arbitrarily covered only to be unveiled later, but no matter what we choose to deal with each one of the episodes of human history, they will stay here; they will always stay here.   

Not only that, what else I found unique about this artwork, is the way it takes advantage of the physical setting of the space where it is positioned in, and it probably won’t have the same arresting impact on viewers if it were placed in a different room. In a circular space, you don’t get to see everything at once, and yet it is unobstructively continuous and expansive: as you walk around the circle, the entire installation will send you into a holistic and dynamic experience. As you set yourself in motion to engage different portions of the artwork, you see the wheel of history is moving forward through your own reflection—excitement and joy shall pass, so shall disappointment and pain; memories will fade away, but the only thing absolutely certain is right now, right at this moment, you are reading and absorbing what the artist is trying to say—that is the only thing that truly matters.  

The best lens to shoot artworks

I still remember the final project of the art history class which I took in my freshman year in college: everyone was supposed to go to The Met and pick one painting, sit there and look at it for a good three hours, go home, then write a 20-page report on it. No documentation through photographing was allowed–but by the time that three hours had passed, you should have “internalized” the painting so photographs wouldn’t be necessary anyway. I don’t remember if I actually obeyed the rule or not, but I did type down most of the report at a Greek restaurant right off the corner of the 82nd and Madison–not only I wanted to capture my thoughts instantly, also I had little faith in my fleeting memory that I was so afraid of any erosion happening to whatever I just “internalized” might cost me an A.

Now the question is: if I indeed photographed the artwork, did I still need to sit in front of the painting for three hours instead of looking closely at the pictures I had taken while lying on a much more comfortable couch?  Not sure. But why would anyone visit the museums if photographs are becoming the only vessel through which people experience and interact with art? Yes, there is distortion or omittance of details by photographs, but there is something else irreplaceable about looking at art in person–the authenticity that cannot be transmitted through photocopies, the emotional connections that you can only establish with your surroundings, the tingling sensation that touches your heart because now you get to see the full story of this particular artwork’s creation and life–the best lens to capture artworks is always your eyes.

I am by no means discrediting the necessity of photographing artworks. After all, it made art much more accessible for people living in remote areas, and it certainly made it much easier for researchers to compare and analyze artworks ranging from different geographical locations and time periods. As we digitally enhance so much of our lives, a variety of remediation of artworks has become art as well–some artists even made their art specifically intended to be displayed on photos and websites. As the line between digital and in-person experience is becoming ever more blurry, the way we interact with artworks is bound to change.


Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art”.

Let there be light

I have always been fascinated by Caravaggio’s bold use of light (amongst anecdotes of his “chilling adventures”). The stark contrast makes his works look like film noir. As our old friend David Hockney stated, “he invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.” Now the question is: how did Caravaggio get to see the details submerged in the darkness and so vividly, and almost sensationally, reflected on the canvas? One compelling belief is he had used some sort of optical device, like camera obscure, to aid this process. 

Just by looking at this painting, he might have introduced a single strong source of light that illuminates each of his figures against darkness—very similar to a theatrical spotlight. After projecting those subjects onto his canvas, he then would be able to piece all of these photographic close-ups together like a collage—which is exactly how this painting looks like to me. Now, there is certainly no solid evidence that Caravaggio absolutely used this technique, but Giambattista della Porta, the Italian writer who first advocated for artists using camera obscura in his best-selling book Natural Magick, was in frequent communication with Caravaggio’s patron Cardinal del Monte. More mysteries? I think so. 

From one reality to another

The journey through an art museum is often a journey through human history. 

We walked through the period of Medieval to Renaissance, from Neoclassicism to Romanticism; when the rise of photography finally liberated artists from the domain of providing an accurate depiction of the physical world, as they began to explore how paintings can go beyond the ideal of imitating reality, there arrived the era of Modern art. 

But what is left there to paint? Artists like Renoir and Monet focused on portraying moments of impression, accentuating the changing qualities of light with visible brushstrokes. It departs from capturing the still moments of life, and instead attempts to project a particular segment of their memories onto the canvas. By doing so, artists seek to capture a feeling or experience—something completely subject to their own interpretations as well as the expression of their individual ideals. 

Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926), Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1983.1.29

As time went on, this presence of subjectivity and individuality became more and more dominant in the art scene. Artists like Picasso and Braque defied the traditional expectations and explore alternative ways of constructing visual experiences of their own; Rothko employed significant open space and expressive use of colors as a profound form of communications; Pollock ascertained the journey toward making a work of art could be as important as the work of art itself. Throughout the 20th century, a variety of materials were applied, and a number of methods were experimented; they expanded and developed the definition and possibilities available to the artists for the creation of new artworks, even when it meant forcing the audience to take the trouble to question their own preconceptions about art.  

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912 – 1956), Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950, oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1976.37.1

Art is evolutionary, and great art movements are revolutionary. Bearing the influence of what came before them, each generation of artists heroically march into the unknown and comment upon the reality in the way that encompasses the fundamental changes of technology, society, and philosophy. As the world is fleeting as it is transforming, their works help us apprehend the zeitgeist of the days in which they had trailblazed. 



Irvine, Martin. Introduction to Modern Art and Modernism: Framework for Case Studies at the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Strickland, Carol, and John Boswell. The Annotated Mona Lisa: a Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017.

A Talk with Morse

Group: Fred Ji & Yutong Zhang

  • Metapainting/Metamedia

I was very much fascinated by the concept of “metapainting” while looking at Morse’ artworks–House of Representatives and Gallery of the Louvre. Have the scenes depicted in these paintings really took place in history? Or are they wholly based on the imagination of the artist? If so, could this be a common practice routinely executed in the process of creating metapaintings: to transcribe the images from your brain–not from what they’ve witnessed–to the canvas? In that sense, metapaining is not merely a collection of simple interfaces, but also the reprint of the artist’s highly idealized world. In the world of House of Representatives, each member of the Congress seems to be focusing their own task and yet gathering in the same room with one single unified purpose in mind–to represent the people from their district and to serve their country, which perfectly embodies the moral of E Pluribus Unum–the very motto that speaks of the union between the states and the federal government in order to form a single entity, manifesting this country’s constant struggle between national versus group identity, group versus individual rights and multiculturalism.

This reminds me of the famous The School of Athens–a masterpiece that brings together the most brilliant minds from ancient Greece. It certainly depicts a scene that never took place in real life, but Raphael communicates the ideas by visualizing his imaginations on each individual historical figures then aggregating these fragments into one organic, wholesome piece. The message behind these artworks is, of course, open for interpretation, but it is certainly interesting to see the artist has all the individual elements at his disposal to compose an expansive and yet intricate setting.

  • Technology and Art (Photography and Painting)

It is hard to really pay attention to those miniature photos in the National Portrait Gallery if you are just normal visitors without an explicit intention to explore more about them. People may just quickly walk through the corridor, glancing at the black and white photos for a few seconds, and then be attracted by other bigger artworks hung on the wall. Honestly, I would also do the same thing if I hadn’t done the assigned preparation reading before the visit, or if I were not on a field trip guided by Professor Irvine.  With the knowledge that Samual Morse himself might be the first American to view a daguerreotype first-hand and to bring it to the United States, it is interesting to see Morse’s own portrait photo inclu ded in this group of photos, which reflect the diversity of American intellectual and cultural life during Lincoln’s presidency.

Morse’s use of camera obscura to assist his painting is a perfect example of the combination of his passion for mimetic reproductive technology and his love for art. According to Gillespie, Morse used camera obscura to obtain the interior view of the building and then reproduced the perspective in canvas. Also. he used camera obscura to copy old masterpieces and then reproduced them in his painting Gallery of the Louvre. He believed that the technology of photography as a medium could assist painters and help them study the perspective, the light, and shadow from nature. I highly admire such a thought that technology can also serve art. When we talk about technology, we usually come to the conception that technology is anything but art, forgetting that technology and art are not excluded from each other. The technological change not only contributed to the Age of Steam, Electricity or Information but also expanded artists’ horizons,.improved their skills and stimulated their creativity. According to the brochure A New Look. Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre, Morse used thin layers of translucent mixtures of oil and pigment to achieve the richness of coloring when painting Gallery of the Louvre, which also can be regarded as a technical experiment. Morse’s case indicates that different technologies as media are involved in the art production process.

I also thought we should acknowledge the importance of being in the setting of a liberal arts program could potentially expose you to the endless amount of possibilities for future exploration on either natural science/technological inventions or politics/performing arts. It simply highlights the very concept of interdisciplinarity that brought all of us together at CCT. The problem, as many of us might have encountered navigating through graduate school, is how to identify the thread that anchors/unifies our interest against all the important matters that we would like to study? For Morse, it was using symbolic media for encoding the transmission of meaning–and transmitting representations through time and across distances, as people now are probably more familiar with the concept of cultural representation and reproductions. 

  • Context and Artwork

The reception change of Morse’s The House of Representatives shows how specific social and cultural context influence the status and popularity of an artwork. Morse’s artwork House of Representatives was initially not as a big success as Morse expected. However, it was eventually included in the Corcoran’s private collection and then by the National Gallery of Art. Historical context changes may explain such a leap.

When he started working on House of Representatives in 1822, about ten years after the Second War for American Independence, the art climate in the United States didn’t have a preference in historical painting. Also, Morse placed his political nostalgia in the painting rather than capture the true chaotic scene of Congress at that time. In reality, including the congressmen from distant rural states threatened the leadership of the eastern states, while in Morse’s painting the Congress remained harmonious and courteous, reflecting his political idealism and his “claiming the superiority of the old ruling class.” However, the weel of the history kept going and neglected his intention of civilizing the Congress. The historical background may be the reason that his House of Representatives was not recognized at that time.

When Corcoran’s collection bought The House of Representatives in 1911, nearly 90 years passed after this painting was finished, the social context also changed. Corcoran’s purchase strategy shifted from the old European taste to contemporary American paintings with the intention of encouraging American genius Also, because Corcoran’s collection was competing with other museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was ambitious in mounting special exhibitions. Lots of artworks were collected by purchasing or gifting, including Morse’s  The House of Representatives. At this time, considering the social context, this painting was probably endowed with the educational value and was related to the democracy in the new era or the national pride.


Sarah Kate Gillespie, “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.

Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011. Excerpts.

Martin Irvine, “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”

A personal manifesto for art and space

Last week, I finally had the chance to visit the Phillips Collections, marking the completion of my personal quest of visiting all the major museums in the Washington D.C. area (not including Arts & Industries, assuming that place is opening at some point).  Most of these places I have visited often took shape and turned into monumental institutions, as they tend to occupy a much primer historical gallery space and cater to a much broader audience—“to house their artistic treasures to impress citizens and visitors with the community’s culture”. In comparison, my visit to the Phillips Collections is somewhat refreshing, as it offers a much more intimate setting between the audience and the artworks. 

For instance, for a painting as well-known as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, my intuition is that it should be hung at a much bigger hall, probably taking up the center of a much bigger wall—not just to accommodate the enormous amount of visitors, but also to highlight the significance of this particular piece. However, as we found out, the painting was placed in a much smaller space, pulling the audience considerably closer to the painting, but I actually think it is quite fascinating by how this arrangement echoes Renoir’s vivid depiction of the dynamic interaction happening amongst the figures by keeping the viewers engaged in the scene, as if they were actually attending the party. 

Another interesting example is how Piet Mondrian’s famous Painting No. 9 was hung on the wood-paneled wall at where it looked a living room area, next to a fireplace and a piano. The stark contrast in style makes me believe the curator—maybe in this case, the host—would like you to pay your undivided attention to those two pieces as soon as you enter the space. Those examples simples simply showcase what an important role the environment could play in terms of influencing the viewers’ experience of appreciating the artworks on display.  

Luckily, I was able to pay a visit to the Frick Collections in New York during the exact same week—both started as personal collections housed in private collection, it was interesting to see the comparison between those two as they were both turned into museums open to the public. The artworks that Frick Collection focuses on are mostly from the pre-impressionist era, which are very different in style from the ones at Phillips Collection. Interestingly enough, the curator at Frick Collection decided to emphasize on the “unity” between art and space, as all the artworks look they are “blended in the space”. As much as I enjoyed the experience, it did make me think perhaps such arrangement has a different purpose rather than focusing viewers’ attention solely on the artworks (showing off Mr. Frick’s enormous wealth, maybe?).  

To sum up, it is just fascinating how space can impact audience’s perception of art, consciously or subconsciously. To appreciate and read art requires not only examining the objects but also observing and absorbing the context where the objects are placed in. 



Alexander, Edward P., Mary Alexander, and Juilee Decker. 2017. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of MuseumsRowman & Littlefield.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

O’doherty, Brian. 1999. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space Univ of California Press.