Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Presentation of Art

lksmith's picture

            There in never just one way to look at and understand anything. Not only does each person bring their own knowledge and experience into their view, their perspective is also shifted by the surrounding conditions. Generally people do not look for the subtle effects that the presentation of an object has on the meaning of that object. The way in which an object is presented has a strong effect on the overall meaning and purpose of that object. This is especially true when talking about art. Most people look only at the artwork itself and don’t consider the affect that its surroundings and their own prior knowledge have on how they see the art.

            Albert Barnes, the creator of the Barnes Foundation, was a strong believer in the idea that the viewing experience and understanding of art is entirely reliant on the way that it is presented. As he created and grew his private art collection that later became the Barnes Foundation, he paid very close attention to the placement of each and every piece inside his house. He arranged them all in such a way as to create connections between all the different pieces in each room and on each wall. No piece was meant to be viewed alone. When the foundation was opened, Barnes used these careful arrangements to teach his students how they should look at the collection and at art in general.

Barnes view of the art in the collection pulled the viewer away from the individual pieces of art and compiled everything together into one greater piece that he created. The artists that created the artwork in the collection didn’t create those pieces with the Barnes Foundation and Barnes’ perspective in mind. Some of them were not even alive to have a say in the matter when Barnes’ started collecting. Each artist had a different idea in mind for each painting they created and Barnes put them together in such a way that those ideas are completely removed from his teachings. Barnes took these works and redefined them to suit his views, changing the meaning of each individual piece unifying them to create his collection.

The great controversy over whether or not the Barnes Foundation should have been moved from its original home in Merion to its new location in Philadelphia is strongly related to the idea that new surroundings can change the meaning of art. The way in which Barnes presented his collection was very specific and purposeful, everything had to be kept exactly as it was to be viewed correctly. When the works were moved into Philadelphia, this completely offset a big part of the art experience at the Barnes Foundation. The interior of the new foundation looks, for the most part, exactly the same as Barnes’ home in Merion did. However, that does not mean that the work looked exactly the same there as they had before. The changes in everything from the lighting to the number of people allowed in to see the paintings was shifted with the move, leaving it all in different conditions than intended originally. Overall the move created a lot more changes to the works than one would think because of these small little changes to the environment.

When I went the Barnes Foundation a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to see this first hand. Before arriving at the Barnes and looking at all of the art, I had no idea of the whole controversy surrounding it and just saw the art as it was. However, the day after my visit I learned of the complicated back story of the foundation. After hearing about everything that happened, I thought of the foundation and everything I saw there in a completely different way than I had before I knew. The entire collection seemed tainted because of the injustices that were done against Barnes and his wishes regarding the treatment of his collection after his death. Even though the art was exactly the same as it was when I visited, it had a new meaning for me and I could not look at it in the same way again.

In the case of the Barnes Foundation it is clear how changing even the smallest aspects of how the artwork is presented can significantly alter the meaning of the art, however, how is the meaning of the art changed when the work is show in a different form? There are many famous paintings that are represented through replicas and other images of the work. When you look at a picture of a painting it distances you from the real thing. Because the representation is not the same as the real painting, it does not have the same effect on the viewer. After seeing the representation so many times, the viewer is no longer able to see the real painting in the same way if they see it in person because they will be thinking of it as the coffee mug or t-shirt that they always see the image on.

There are many different ways to look at a piece of artwork. People see artwork differently because everyone has their own knowledge and perspective but also because there are so many different conditions under which the artwork can be seen. A slight change in those conditions can significantly alter the meaning of a piece of artwork and the way it is viewed in general. Barnes unique way of looking at art takes advantage of this idea and controls as many outside variables as possible to create a very similar experience for everyone that see the collection.