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The Value of Presentation

lksmith's picture

             What does a painting look like? That depends, here are many different way to look at the same painting and each person that views it will see it in a new way. However, the viewer is not the only factor that can be changed to alter the way a painting looks. The environment in which it is displayed is also a very important factor in what the painting looks like even though it is not an inherent trait of the painting. This applies not only to art, but to everything in the world. The way in which something is presented is a key factor in determining how that thing is perceived and understood.

            In general, the idea that an object’s presentation can change the way a person looks at that object is not a new or revolutionary idea. It is the reason why people spend so long rearranging the objects in their house until everything pleases their eye. Each of the things that they have in their home looks different in each of the possible place that they could place it, so they keep moving things around to find the places that make every object look the best that it can. This concept can also be seen through the use of seasonal decorations. In December when it starts to really get cold, people fill their homes with decorations to make their homes feel warmer. This is particularly true with Christmas decorations because when you add the tree and all the garlands and lights to a home it fills the extra space in a room with objects that area associated with feelings of warmth and protection from the winter weather. This makes the home itself seem more pleasant to all who enter. In both of these cases people change the way their house and the things inside of it are perceived by the inhabitants and their guests.

            Although this seems to make perfect sense in the context of organizing and decorating, when it comes to art this idea has been severely neglected. In general when artwork is displayed anywhere it is done in a very scientific and sterilized way, especially when it comes to two-dimensional art. When it can be hung up on a wall, generally it ends up there alone, with nothing like it within a few feet in any direction. The walls are generally white and boring, they are meant to isolate that single piece of artwork in its spot on the wall so that nothing gets in the way of the viewer seeing that piece and nothing else. Albert Barnes saw this traditional format for displaying art and decided that it was not a very good way to look at art. As he put together his vast collection of art, he intentionally arranged it to go against that formula. He filled his house with art from some of the most famous painters and artists of all time in arrangements that displayed the art in ways that the works had never been seen before. He arranged the art to highlight certain aspect of each piece and connect them together with the pieces around them and the other features of the room (furniture, wall decorations). In a way he made his own artwork out of the works of others. He then created the Barnes Foundation to teach people about his way of viewing art and specifically his private collection.

            In his will Barnes clearly stated that his art was never to me moved from the exact location in which he left it, never to be changed. He wanted to preserve his unique way of viewing the art because he believed it to be the only true way to view art. When Barnes died unexpectedly, a whole array of different people tried to sneak past the rules outlined in the will, most were unsuccessful. However, in the end the Barnes Foundation was moved in its entirety from its home in Merion, Pennsylvania to a new location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Despite the obvious deviation from Barnes’ will, there was a significant effort made to keep the general presentation of the artwork the same. However, these efforts were not enough to maintain exactly what Barnes had created. What the movers didn’t consider is the fact that a part of the presentation of the art is the outside location of the building. Even though the viewer might not be thinking about the fact that they are in Merion or the canter of Philadelphia, it has an affect on their mindset when they enter the foundation that can change their whole experience.

            One aspect of the Barnes Foundation that did not change with the move was the arrangement of the paintings themselves and the appearance of the interior of the rooms. The appreciation and understanding of the collection is entirely hinged on this arrangement, there is no other way to arrange the art and produce the same effect that Barnes created. The flow from one piece to the next and the interconnectivity between all of the pieces on each wall and all of the wall together defined the meaning of each painting by the context provided. In any other setting a given painting in the foundation could not bee seen in the same way.

            Another way in which people today end up viewing art is through representations of art. Since before the opening of the Barnes there have been advertisements all over Philadelphia about the Barnes that show a representation of one of the paintings in the museum. Besides the fact that this is clearly not the way in which Barnes had intended for the art to be viewed, it is also not the same as looking at the real painting. When you look at the representation you cannot see the brush strokes and the texture of the painting or have the personal experience with the art that is gained when viewing the original.  

            There are an infinite number of ways to view anything in this world and beyond it. In art, this idea usually only extended to the superficial level of the direct relationship between the specific piece and the person viewing it. Little attention is paid to the relationship between the piece and its environment or the relationship between the environment and the viewer, even though these relationships are essential to the way in which people appreciate art to its fullest. Perhaps Barnes was right in his attempt to perfect the viewing experience of art in that there are ways to view art that truly enhances not only the experience of viewing the art but the art itself.