“The artist is really interested in how …”
If you frequent tours of art museums and galleries you will have heard this phrase used by staff and docents to introduce an artist’s intense preoccupation with an unconventional or unexpected way of seeing, examining, or representing the world.
For example, “The artist is really interested in how the traditional museum curatorial process can be used to comprehend a vast fictional earth”—is how I might have described the focus of Rachel Guardiola’s work currently on display at Arlington Arts Center, which I saw last week.
Is it fair to say that making art is a little like embracing an obsession in the most beautiful and productive way? If so, the art museum/gallery might have another relatively untapped asset in their social programming toolbox.
Deep interest (and the intrinsic motivation that accompanies it) can be powerfully absorbing, calming, and helpfully distracting. Similarly, proximity to this kind of intellectual devotion—especially where the outward manifestation is often beautiful and arresting and exists for its own sake—is probably also good for us for the following reasons:
- Something about the deep interest that develops into art feels egalitarian and inclusive and maybe helps art-making become more accessible.
- The explicit connections between an interest and a final product celebrate not just outcome, but experimentation and process. The celebration of process honors curiosity and questioning.
- Willingness to share an interest with the world requires extraordinary courage. Art-making is an act of confidence and generosity.
- Knowing that people are working to turn their questions and curiosities into objects of beauty, incisiveness, and humor is comforting. It means that art and culture are valued and protected in the world.
Where do museums and galleries come into this? Perhaps we could include more in our interpretation about what a body of work means to its creator, and open this topic in a way that invites further discussion. What deep fascinations or obsessions does the art spring from? What are the vital driving forces of the work? The question ‘What are you fascinated by?’ could be a great prompt for a public program (art-making or otherwise).
Even imagined content of this nature can be incredibly powerful. The label pictured below is one of many quotes on display at the reopened Renwick Gallery’s debut exhibition, Wonder, which tries to go deeper into the possible ‘process’ of each work, to imagine the artist’s experience, and (in this particular case) to hint at the wonderfully obsessive experience of pursuing something great.
Perhaps, instead of feeling dismay when we hear a visitor say “I could have done that,” we might feel excited. It could be great if we were revealing enough about the “interest behind the art,” that our visitors felt similarly empowered to pursue their own passions.