A Spectator is an Artist Too

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Is there anything more entertaining, inspiring, and instructive than observing art? Indeed, it’s watching an audience interact with it. This book may forever change your approach to art, urging you to always consider both the work and the response. Because, ultimately, artists create, but we – the audience – complete the work.

For more information, please go to: www.johanidema.net

ISBN 978-90-6369-590-3

‘Like an anthropologist, Johan Idema studies the remarkable species, ‘the art viewer’, which – partly due to social media – has rapidly evolved over the past ten years. The result is moving, funny, occasionally vulgar, often surprising, and always extending the understanding of both familiar and lesser known works of art.’ Sacha Bronwasser, writer and art journalist

9 789063 695903

JOHAN IDEMA HOW WE LOOK AT ART, HOW WE BEHAVE AROUND ART

Johan Idema has worked at several cultural institutions and has extensive experience as an art consultant. He is also a regular public speaker. His recent publications include Present! – Rethinking Live Classical Music (2011), which focuses on how to make live classical music more exciting and accessible, and How to Visit an Art Museum (2013), which offers a fresh look at how to get the most out of a trip inside a museum.

A Spectator is an Artist Too is a visual essay about the way humans behave around art: what happens when we are confronted with something immensely beautiful, challenging, or puzzling? Observing artworks and their viewers lets us discover new perspectives on creativity and better understand how humans interact with art. This book also captures how art museums are changing, as they draw increasingly diverse audiences. The way museumgoers respond to art is becoming more casual, creative, and yes, perhaps also more superficial.

A Spectator is an Artist Too

Johan Idema (1973) is a passionate promoter of innovation in the art world. He works as a consultant, writer, and cultural entrepreneur. He specializes in creative concept development, business planning and innovation management.

‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone’, artist Marcel Duchamp noted. He claimed that we, as spectators, contribute to a work by interpreting it. This makes the moment we stand face-to-face with a painting, a sculpture, or other work of art a crucial, if not magical, one. Touched, inspired, dumbfounded, lost, irritated even, or perhaps called to action – these responses are undeniably part of the artwork.

A Spectator is an Artist Too

FOREWORD BY ERIK KESSELS

JOHAN IDEMA

HOW WE LOOK AT ART, HOW WE BEHAVE AROUND ART


ONLOOKER VERSUS PARTICIPANT FOREWORD

The art world used to see engaging the audience as beneath them. Any effort to encourage ‘participation’ was a cheap trick – pandering to the masses. Artists and museums that actively sought audience participation were seen to be tacky. They were accused of chasing popularity and the approval of the uneducated crowd instead of maintaining the reverence and respect owed to their select artworld peers. It may have taken a while, but museums have seen the light, and perhaps to some extent they’ve even been blinded by it. At a time when the evaluation is, ‘if it isn’t on social media did it even happen?’, museums and art institutions in general are going to extraordinary lengths to involve people even more with the art they display. It’s no longer enough just to get audiences through the door. Now museums must also maximise audience involvement. They spend countless hours and allocate huge budgets to fund research and marketing departments, test panels, focus groups, activation specialists, social media gurus, and social engagement strategies. Idema’s latest book shows, with stunning simplicity, that engaging the audience isn’t terribly difficult. All museum professionals need to do to understand how an audience interacts with art is, ironically enough, to take time to do exactly what museumgoers are supposed to do in the first place – to observe. When you look a little closer at museums these days, you’ll notice a delightful dichotomy. The vestiges of traditional ways of looking at art are competing with new ones: onlooker versus participant. Museums have always erected carefully considered barriers as a means to enforce a ‘safe’ distance between the art and the audience: watchful security guards ready to reprimand anyone who gets too close to the art, the ‘Please do not touch’ signs, glass dividers, velvet ropes, and elaborate security


systems. And then they invite: ‘Step in,’ ‘Press here,’ ‘Stand there,’ ‘Look here,’ ‘Use this hashtag,’ ‘Share your photo,’ ‘Vote for your favourite’. Museums have realised that they can’t stop people interacting with the artwork, so they may as well try to shape how this interaction occurs, in as much as that’s possible. Today Art Criticism is no longer an elitist sport. Audiences are savvier than ever before; they know all the tricks being played on them. People go to museums to explore, not just to see. They don’t like being told what to do, where to walk, or how to look at things. Rather, every visitor entering an exhibition is an artist in disguise. Art is something to be discovered, questioned, re-contextualised, and appropriated. Engaging with art should be an intuitive experience, not a logical one. Art should evoke a reaction, a response that should be allowed to happen organically and spontaneously, not directed by a panel of experts. Museums pay a lot of money to try to predict how audiences will react and interact with an exhibition, but human behaviour, particularly emotional behaviour, is notoriously unpredictable. No matter how hard museums try, they can never curate an audience’s opinion, and that unpredictability is, in itself, art. The ubiquity of the ‘sharing culture’ continues to blur the line between artist and audience. Audiences interact with an artwork, which they document and then share with their own audience, adding their own context, perspective, and creative insights to the original work. Idema not only proves that art lives through interaction, but that this form of communication between art and the audience has the ability to connect generations and societies separated by conflict, language, politics, distance, or even hundreds of years. In documenting these behaviours, Idema engages in a form of artistic anthropology that is arguably as valuable as the original artwork. This book is a perfect showcase of ‘natural’ audience participation. Art should be a conversation between the art(ist) and the viewers. Audiences will participate in the art, even if they break the strictures of etiquette, and so the art should be curated and exhibited in a way that encourages it to ‘talk’ to the observers. Then the best work will speak for itself by how the audience responds. Erik Kessels

Erik Kessels is a Dutch artist, designer and curator, and creative partner of KesselsKramer, a communication agency in Amsterdam and London


CONTENTS

A RISKY ACT | INTRODUCTION

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ARTWORK MEETS SPECTATOR | WHY ART SHINES THE MOST IN PRESENCE OF OBSERVERS TOUCH 16 PURE COINCIDENCE? 18 DRIFT 20 SOAKING IN RED 22 A SENSE OF SCALE 24

CREATIVE CONTACT | ACTIVELY ENGAGING WITH AN ARTWORK PART OF THE ART RECIPROCAL GAZING CHEAP MIMICRY? AN ACT OF BRAVERY MUSEUM BINGO STANDING CLOSE EAGER ENGAGEMENT WALLPAPER ART

28 30 32 34 36 38 40 42

TAKE A PICTURE | THE MUSEUM AS A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY THE SELF HAVING ART EXPERIENCES MEETING FRIENDS IMAGINATIVE VOYEURISM A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP PERFECT CONDITIONS IN A GALLERY FAR, FAR AWAY

46 48 50 52 54 58

A SENSUAL APPROACH | EXPERIENCING ART WITH MORE THAN OUR GAZE A SOFT FUR KISSING ALLOWED VIGOROUSLY MIMICKING ART AN INSTITUTIONAL REBEL GEOMETRIC ART

62 64 66 70 72

PLAYING THE ARTIST | HOW SPECTATORS CREATE AS WELL THE REAL ARTIST A FORM OF FLATTERY ARTWORK DISMANTLED GIANTS WAITING A PHOTO OF A PHOTO

76 78 80 82 84


WHAT ART MIRRORS | DISCOVERING RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN ART AND ITS AUDIENCE WALKING MEN JUVENILE MUSEUMGOERS TWO CURVES DOPPELGÄNGER SNAPS A LAST WISH MEETING OF THE MINDS BEFORE THE STORM

NEW FORMATS | WHEN ART IS PRESENTED DIFFERENTLY 88 90 92 94 96 98 100

INTELLECTUAL PLEASURE | DO MUSEUMGOERS WORK HARD ENOUGH? POOLSIDE 106 PHOTOGRAPHING YOUR GIRLFRIEND 108 INTERPRETING A TRIANGLE 110 WHAT TO WANT FROM ART 112 NOTHINGNESS 114 FOOD FOR THOUGHT 116 ART IS SHIT 118 ONE MINUTE MEMORIES 120 A HEROIC STATE 122

SPECTATOR ACTIVISM | REVOLTING AGAINST THE MUSEUM GOD HATES RENOIR VICTORIAN PORN SPIRITUAL REWARDS THE WORST MUSEUMGOER EVER MIDDLE FINGER TACTILE SPECTATORSHIP

126 128 130 134 136 140

INSTAGRAM MUSEUMS AN OBSERVER’S TALENT NOT YOUR AVERAGE BALL PIT SIMPLE ALTERATIONS INSIDE OUR HEADS

142 144 146 150 152

RELEVANT TODAY | HOW SPECTATORS MAKE ART TOPICAL (AGAIN) AN INNOCENT KISS 156 MUSLIM CALVINISM 158 UNBEARABLY CUTE 160 TYPECAST 162

READ MORE

164

FROM THE SAME AUTHOR: HOW TO VISIT AN ART MUSEUM

166

FROM THE SAME AUTHOR: HOW TO BE A BETTER TOURIST

167

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

168

INDEX

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A RISKY ACT INTRODUCTION

There are many books about art. They describe how it’s created, by which artists, and the ideas they celebrate or challenge. But there might be only one book – indeed, the one you’re holding – that shows how art is actually received, digested if you will, by the spectators standing directly in front of it. This is quite remarkable if we realize that, ultimately, it’s never the object itself, but always our reaction to it that determines whether an artwork will or will not be meaningful. Art in itself means nothing, changes nothing. For it to mean something, art requires not only our gaze but our behaviour. The famous painter Rothko knew this all too well. He observed that ‘a picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer, but it dies by the same token.’ Rothko thus called it ‘a risky act’ to send an artwork out into the world.

WHAT IS THIS BOOK ABOUT? Art historians only study objects, but how these objects are received requires just as much of our attention. This attention is exactly what A Spectator is an Artist Too pays. This book presents a visual essay about the way humans behave around art: how do we look at art, how do we interact with art, what happens when we are confronted with something immensely beautiful, challenging, or puzzling? Thus, A Spectator is an Artist Too shows and analyses what museum spectatorship in the 21st century looks like.

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The book presents sixty cases and more than two hundred photos of museumgoers reacting to works of art. These cases observe the many ways of responding, whether it is viewers imitating an artwork, photographing themselves with it, protesting against it, or making themselves ‘part of the art’. Ultimately, art is – when presented publicly – about communication: a message from the artist to us, the audience. Even if the artist’s message may sometimes entail a ‘simple’ idea or even an undefined feeling, it’s often worth asking ourselves if we have understood it properly.

ARTIST NEED OUR EYES A Spectator is an Artist Too stems from one simple yet essential idea: art requires an audience to be able to deliver on its promise. In other words, an artwork only has value when confronting an observer. If we approach art with closed eyes, nothing will be revealed; artists need our eyes. They require us as their accomplices, to participate in their work. Or, as artist Marcel Duchamp noted in 1957, ‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone.’ He claimed that we, as spectators, contribute to the work as well. This makes the moment when we stand face-to-face with a painting, sculpture, or other artwork crucial, if not magical. Whether we feel touched, inspired, dumbfounded, lost, irritated, or even called to action – these responses are undeniably part of the artwork.

NEW MEANING AND PERSPECTIVES Observing works of art and their viewers together offers a fresh and more complete way of interpreting art. Seeing how people respond to an artwork and noticing (possible) relationships between the two often leads to discovering new meanings of the work. ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors’, writer Oscar Wilde noted. When we become aware of the distinction between art as a physical object and the experience of it, we will start to observe differently. We will notice the vital role of the spectator in art: how an audience can make an artwork shine, or can, just as easily, ignore or even dismantle an artist’s intentions.

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Observing museumgoers’ behaviour will also reveal the importance of how exactly art is presented and the role of museums as intermediaries. The second-person perspective – the position of observing the art-viewer – allows for insight into the ways people want to experience art. It also lets us understand better what it is exactly that brings humans to the museum. People do not only come to the museum ‘to see things that are there’; their behaviour displays other important motivations as well. A museum, as it turns out, is not only a place for art, but also a place for people. It’s a place where they like to come, get together, entertain themselves, and engage with life through art. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière claims that art audiences are becoming increasingly numb. According to him, this is the result of how audiences are approached, and the way art is presented. By way of reply to Rancière, the pictures in this book reveal audience needs and desires that can and should be addressed, and opportunities to involve visitors better. Many images demonstrate the potential for museums to connect humans with art in more meaningful ways. These valuable visitor-generated insights also make the book appropriate for researchers and museum professionals.

A COLLECTION OF UNPRECEDENTED SCALE At the beginning of this century photography had already become a digital medium. But it was not until around 2010 that we were indeed able to take practically unlimited pictures, do so without rankling museum guards with the ever-forbidden flash, and publish them on online platforms. As soon as we could, we did. And then something remarkable happened: over ten years a collection of artefacts of unprecedented scale (and ever growing) has been made available online to everyone, containing hundreds of thousands of authentic museumgoers’ pictures. This collection of images proves to be a rich resource, revealing what was previously largely undocumented – how museumgoers behave around art – and now making this book possible. The pictures show people visiting museums, looking at, posing with, and interacting with works of art in countless ways. The fact that so many visitors are documenting their museum experiences is a surprising phenomenon – a behaviour that does not fit into the traditional idea of a museum visit. It has taken museums some time to realize this development and ‘join the party’. But now many museums allow taking pictures inside their galleries and even encourage visitors to do so by sharing their pictures to the museum’s online audience.

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A TURNING POINT A Spectator is an Artist Too not only offers a contemporary snapshot of human behaviour around art, it also reveals how that behaviour is evolving. When considering all images in this book in their entirety, we can see how art, the way we react to it, and museums themselves are undeniably changing. What this book captures and comments on foremost is how, over the past ten years, museumgoers worldwide are responding to art in increasingly casual, creative, and (to some) more ignorant ways. This trend is increased by a new breed of pop-up ‘museums’, such as the Museum of Ice Cream or the Color Factory – attracting experience-hungry millennials with exhibitions defined for their Instagrammability. Many pictures in this book show a new generation of museumgoers, the increasing influence of social media, and a new, emerging category of works of art in which the public can participate and immerse themselves. Clearly, art museums are becoming performative spaces as well, as they increasingly draw diverse audiences. But the change in our behaviour around art also signals a possible turning point. For many museumgoers, their visit are less and less about the art itself, and more and more about the experience surrounding art. ‘Museums are no longer spaces in which to experience art, but rather spaces in which to perform the self having art experiences’, critic Rob Horning observes. Enough museumgoers are now behaving so freely and open-mindedly, and at the same time increasingly superficially, that both museums and museumgoers should ask themselves when exactly a museum visit is successful. Obviously, there is never one right answer to this question, and this book proposes no single answer. Rather, the sixty ‘scenes’ presented here provide inspiration for an exciting array of possible, sometimes even contradicting, answers. Together, the scenes show that the art museum is becoming an ever richer and more intricate place to spend our time and to enjoy the arts, full of ideas and messages to take in.

EVERYTHING IS REAL A Spectator is an Artist Too is based on the study of tens of thousands of pictures that museumgoers have taken during their visits. It presents a careful selection of the most appealing and remarkable of these images. Everything we see has really happened; nothing was staged for the book; and some scenes only lasted for a fraction of a second. These fleeting moments are authentic and therefore revealing. But it’s important to realize that a photograph of a visitor’s actions is not conclusive. We may 11


see a snapshot of their behaviour but we’re not certain to know what exactly goes on in the heads and hearts of those portrayed. Nonetheless, many photographs, and especially the ones examined in this book, largely speak for themselves. They capture the remarkable correlation between works of art and their observers. Most of them clearly portray museumgoers’ motivations and reactions, either intentionally displayed or unconsciously revealed. Where this book presents identical photographs of different visitors acting alike or taking the same kind of pictures, it does so to show patterns of typical museum behaviour or typical reactions to a specific artwork. The texts accompanying the images offer essential reflection on what we see, interpret what they may mean, and challenge the reader to form his or her own opinion. The texts are written by an author who, as an arts consultant, has extensive experience with strategic museum planning, curating exhibitions, and audience research. The author is an avid museumgoer, has visited many of the works of art included in the book himself, and has studied the behaviour of his fellow museumgoers to those works in person. Where pictures are described as ‘selfie’, this book employs a broad definition: an image that includes oneself (or with another person or as part of a group) that is often, but not necessarily, taken by oneself.

WE COMPLETE THE WORK Is there anything more entertaining, inspiring, and instructive than observing art? Yes, it’s watching an audience interact with it. This book will hopefully forever change your approach to art, urging you to always consider both the work itself and the response to it. It proves that art often shines brightest when in the presence of an observer. Because, ultimately, artists create, but we – the audience – complete the work.

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TOUCH Look at this brave girl! Carefully she’s sticking out her hand into the yellow glow, checking if the cornered space is real or an optical illusion – a painting perhaps, framed by fluorescent light beams. Beautiful, isn’t it? We may consider this toddler’s curiosity a big compliment for Dan Flavin, artist of untitled. He thought of light as ‘a matter of fact’. The girl is verifying exactly that, as open and directly as Flavin wanted his art to be. This ‘scene’ reminds of what we should do more often when looking at art, and what in fact this book is all about: take a step back and see how others take in the work. Because for us, onlookers, this child’s boldness is a gift. It creates a powerful image that will probably stick with you and enrich your perspective. Flavin’s light sculptures are straightforward but exciting and this little spectator reminds us of that in her own brilliant way.

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17


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PART OF THE ART Museums have long assumed – and still do – that the single reason people visit them is to see things that are there. But there is one behaviour that disrupts this belief: selfinsertion. Many visitors demonstrate their longing to be the thing. With considered stagings of their photographs, younger museumgoers often display their desire to be part of the art. They do so by posing alongside an artwork in such a way that it looks as though they and the work are one. ‘It’s my way to feel closer to the art, like you’re part of the piece’, one self-inserter tells researchers. How seriously should museums take this behaviour? Museum researcher Elizabeth Hunter considers self-insertion an outlet for museum visitors ‘whose sensory access has been restricted to the visual by multiple protective barriers, but who still crave embodied engagement with artworks.’ And she’s right. The results may vary from amazing to banal, from creative to doltish, but everyone who makes an effort to feel closer to the art should be taken very seriously. Their movements toward connection should be encouraged, not the least by museums.

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CHEAP MIMICRY? Wayne Thiebaud is famous for his mouth-watering cake paintings (see page 120). But with Supine Woman he turns to his 18-year-old daughter, to disturbing result. Is she in danger? Is she dead? Or is there a sexual nature to it, her short skirt and legs slightly apart. Art history features many women posing lying, but Supine Woman may be the only one that strongly elicits imitation. Coincidence or not, its imitators are also short skirted with eerie expressions on their faces. It’s only cheap mimicry, one could argue, at the expense of the many psychoanalytical meanings of this painting. But is it? Supine Woman offers several (conflicting) messages, but there are no definite answers. Painted at an odd angle, Thiebaud knew how powerful perspective can be. But so do museumgoers. Lying down and sensing the woman’s pose may be a strange yet insightful experience leading to additional views on her state of being. Art is not only a head puzzle; it requires sensual intelligence and playfulness as well. Perhaps the museum should invite everyone to ‘Understand this painting through imitation’.

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33


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THE SELF HAVING ART EXPERIENCES Standing in front of the enormous neon circles of Voltes IV blinking on and off in merciless white can be quite overwhelming. Its bright light drains away all other colour and depth, and reduces the presence of viewers into sharp, black silhouettes that are nonetheless still recognizably them. Obviously, this scene makes Voltes IV a photogenic artwork.

Voltes IV is often classified as optical art, a movement from the sixties that pursued optical illusions. Artist John Armleder, however, created the piece much later (2004). It’s rather impossible, in fact, to consider this work, and in particular its spectators, as not being part of today’s art world. ‘Museums are no longer spaces in which to experience art’, critic Rob Horning says, ‘but rather spaces in which to perform the self having art experiences.’ What’s particularly striking in Voltes IV is how Armleder has created a piece in which observer and artwork seamlessly coincide, resulting in imaginative compositions of museum spectatorship. Coincidence or not, this is the ultimate work for museumgoers who want to show (off) their art experience.

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A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP The act is as simple as it is effective: place your hand holding a smartphone strategically in front of a portrait and it looks like the head is taking its own selfie. Instantly, centuries old subjects merge with today’s visual culture, even sporting our latest mobile technology. The big similarity between then and now? The vanity, of course; the performance and the need to be seen. After all, these portraits were the selfies of their day. It’s the virtuosity of nineteenth century portrait painters – painting eyes so piercing and glances focused directly towards the viewer – that makes these interventions work so well. What may work less well, as the critique goes, is that many selfie takers are photographing, but merely glancing at, the art. Let’s not forget, however, that these selfies are driven by important underlying needs to create, to play (the ageold fantasy of an artwork coming to life), and to gain a sense of ownership. What we actually see here are new generations of museum visitors working hard to connect with nineteenth century art, in their own beautiful way. Museums, please take notice and help them move forward!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Is there anything more entertaining, inspiring, and instructive than observing art? Indeed, it’s watching an audience interact with it. This book may forever change your approach to art, urging you to always consider both the work and the response. Because, ultimately, artists create, but we – the audience – complete the work.

For more information, please go to: www.johanidema.net

ISBN 978-90-6369-590-3

‘Like an anthropologist, Johan Idema studies the remarkable species, ‘the art viewer’, which – partly due to social media – has rapidly evolved over the past ten years. The result is moving, funny, occasionally vulgar, often surprising, and always extending the understanding of both familiar and lesser known works of art.’ Sacha Bronwasser, writer and art journalist

9 789063 695903

JOHAN IDEMA HOW WE LOOK AT ART, HOW WE BEHAVE AROUND ART

Johan Idema has worked at several cultural institutions and has extensive experience as an art consultant. He is also a regular public speaker. His recent publications include Present! – Rethinking Live Classical Music (2011), which focuses on how to make live classical music more exciting and accessible, and How to Visit an Art Museum (2013), which offers a fresh look at how to get the most out of a trip inside a museum.

A Spectator is an Artist Too is a visual essay about the way humans behave around art: what happens when we are confronted with something immensely beautiful, challenging, or puzzling? Observing artworks and their viewers lets us discover new perspectives on creativity and better understand how humans interact with art. This book also captures how art museums are changing, as they draw increasingly diverse audiences. The way museumgoers respond to art is becoming more casual, creative, and yes, perhaps also more superficial.

A Spectator is an Artist Too

Johan Idema (1973) is a passionate promoter of innovation in the art world. He works as a consultant, writer, and cultural entrepreneur. He specializes in creative concept development, business planning and innovation management.

‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone’, artist Marcel Duchamp noted. He claimed that we, as spectators, contribute to a work by interpreting it. This makes the moment we stand face-to-face with a painting, a sculpture, or other work of art a crucial, if not magical, one. Touched, inspired, dumbfounded, lost, irritated even, or perhaps called to action – these responses are undeniably part of the artwork.

A Spectator is an Artist Too

FOREWORD BY ERIK KESSELS

JOHAN IDEMA

HOW WE LOOK AT ART, HOW WE BEHAVE AROUND ART