Yesterday was my first day at the Art Institute of Chicago. My plan is to go there three or four days a week to observe paintings and people looking at paintings. Several subjects interest me (more about those later), but one above all preoccupies me: what kinds of experiences do people have in front of paintings? What shapes their experiences? What kind of prior experience do people bring with them to museums? How do they apply this to how they observe painting? What can we as teachers (or art historians or parents) do to foster deep experience at museums? For this kind of experience ultimately permeates the experiences we have with ourselves, with others, and with the world. (This last statement is so bombastic that it makes me wince, but think of how a beautiful sky is deeply experienced by some people and not looked at by others. For some it makes their day a little less stressful, a little more meaningful. For others it is a reason to put on their sunglasses!)


I met a woman yesterday who was visiting the Art Institute for the first time; she had come to town for the Jazz Festival and her sister told her she would enjoy the museum. She was in the “check bag” line at the same time as me, asking the fellow working there how to turn off the flash on her digital camera. I asked her if we couldn’t meet two hours later so that she could tell me about her visit and she accepted.


What jumped out at me the most (other than the fact that I was ill-prepared to interview someone, I pretty much sucked!) was that she used exactly the same adjective for the four paintings that had made an impression on her: they were “nice”. How? What about them was nice? She didn’t know, they were just nice. Really nice. Now, I am not putting into question at all the experience of this person (who was kind enough to talk to a total stranger who wears (no!) patchouli about her personal encounter with painting). What I am wondering is if impoverishment of language can in any way limit a person’s experience? “Nice” as a word doesn’t have any descriptive powers. It is, like, “like”. In fact, isn’t it a bit like “interesting”? Both words can be used for almost anything, including things that are actually devoid of “nice” and “interest” when the interlocuter wants to be (hah!) “nice”.


I don’t know very well the protocol of blogdom (I’m totally new). I have a feeling that this “post” might be reaching treatise proportions, so I’m signing off with a question and a thought. First the question: does impoverishment of expression influence in any way impoverishment of experience? Second, the thought: it is taken from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. He says, “To observe is not the same thing as to look at or to view. […] One observes in order to see what one would not see if one did not observe.” Does observation depend on (one could look at it the other way and say elicit) deeper language?


Your comments, please!








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