In the post-pandemic future, I trust I will again have the opportunity to be in the physical presence of art, will be able to look at it searchingly, circle it or be encircled by it, in some cases even touch it.
If the general shutdown of galleries and museums, studios and parks has taught me anything about my relationship to art, it’s that being in its actual presence is wholly different from experiencing it through the mediation of a screen (setting aside those mediums that are intentionally engineered to be experienced by electronic channels). I profoundly feel a longing for something personal, something in front of me that is for me, that is similar to what happens when I lock the gaze of someone else who recognizes me and indicates this recognition with language or a nod or just a relaxation in their bodily demeanor. I don’t get these corporeal responses from an artwork, but I do get my focus reciprocated; I get to measure my own body against a work and thereby come into some kind of intimate relation. We occupy the same space and time, and that means we become kindred in some meaningful way. No wonder I feel adrift these days, wandering through nimbus clouds of mental haze. I can’t tell where I am because I have few anchor points by which to take my own measure. Seeing art in person allowed me that.
So I imagined what will change, or what should change, when I no longer have to see art by way of electronic media, and I developed a set of convictions, perhaps responsibilities, to set myself as a viewer, because too often I’ve walked into a gallery, swept my gaze over the work for few seconds, and walked out believing that there was nothing else there for me. Something about this moment tells me that in doing so I have been taking art for granted. So, here’s my four-point plan to ensure that once this is all over, this doesn’t keep happening.
I need to ask questions of the work.
These are not the “why” questions that flummox and bedevil most interlocutors, but instead I will begin with the simple: What is happening here? If I can ask that question of the work and stay with it until it is answered, I will have begun to take the work seriously. I will have begun to see that something has happened and is happening right now in the moment of this encounter. By posing this question I can begin to make myself present to the art even as it is present with me the moment I make visual contact. From here I can venture onto more precarious ground and ask myself, How did this come about? And there are subsidiary, related queries: What kind of care had to be taken to make this thing? How long did this take and what else besides physical labor did it require of the maker? If it were unmade how might the world be poorer by that unmaking?
I need to imagine the worldview that brought the work about.
There are many artists—perhaps it's fairer to say most of them—who make work that I could not have predicted would exist, and there is something there in that particular vision. I should wonder about the author’s perspective as evidenced by the work. Is it jaundiced? Is it celebratory? Is it aspirational? Is it nihilist? Is it suffused with generosity, and, if so, is that generosity limited to a select clique? A crucial question will be whether or not I can live in the world the artist imagines or whether I would be welcome there at all. I should also ask: Who can live here and thrive?
I need to look at myself and ask what the work is calling up in me.
It seems essential to understand that this encounter with art is always dialogic. As much as the work speaks to me, I speak to it, if I have made myself fully present to it. We are in a conversation and it may be that what the work evokes in me is a deeply rooted hurt or fear (or another emotional response). When I was an undergraduate, I had to read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain for a college class. The book infuriated me so much that I ripped it in half when I finally forced myself to finish it. Its story reminded me of my own relationship with my father, who was contemptuous of me in a way that paralleled the treatment of John Grimes, the main character of Baldwin’s novel. That experience reminds me that I should recognize in the interchange with a work of art I may show resistance, and, if I do, it’s useful to ask where the resistance comes from and what aspect of the work calls this resistance into play. More, I should ask myself what specific emotional response is being called up. It has happened that I’ve experienced a moment of pure hilarity when I encountered a Christopher Wool painting and deciphered that it spelled out, “If you can’t take a joke you can get the fuck out of my house.” It delighted me, I think, because it gave me permission to vicariously live through a moment of rudeness that I would very rarely allow myself to express in my social life.
I need to recognize the work’s agency.
This is the ultimate gesture of respect to the artwork—to recognize that it is not only not coextensive with the author, it is its own entity with something to say or be. There are several ways this may be understood. I get there by regarding the work as constituting the investment of time, skill, and attention by the artist, which also ultimately exceeds the artist’s hand and mind precisely because it comes into being in a different way for each viewer. Each work of art is like a clock that a watchmaker has given a ticking heart to and then let it go out to beat and beat and take breath and say with its own voice why it needs to be here with us now. The heuristic I use to get myself there when it is difficult to is to ask myself: What does the work make possible now that wasn’t possible before? What does it give me that I did not have?
With these convictions in place when the world has somewhat righted itself and the doors to galleries and museums are open again I hope to walk into an art space and take all these charges seriously. Like the poet Theodore Roethke found in his poem “The Waking,” I want to use each encounter with art to “learn by going where I have to go.”
On May 21, Seph Rodney joins Lissa Jones, host of the podcast Black Market Reads, for a live discussion of Rodney’s 2019 book The Personalization of the Museum Visit, which examines recent shifts in museum management toward a model of public engagement and visitor personalization.