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The Experience of Viewing Art

Taylor Milne's picture

      Previous to visiting The Barnes Foundation, I viewed art through the lens of “Who painted this painting? Have I heard of them? Yes? Okay, it must be good then.” I have never taken a formal art class, nor spent a lot of time researching art beyond that of museum visits and the “art masterpiece” classes that I had in elementary school. I would generally base my opinion of a painting on how “valuable” it was deemed by others, not by if I genuinely enjoyed the painting. I was stripped of this superficial way of viewing art as I wandered through The Barnes Foundation. Without the massive white walls and plaques of a traditional museum persuading me to create an opinion, I was instead able to develop my own personal value of the art based purely on my enjoyment and emotional connections to the piece. Before visiting The Barnes Foundation I had never considered how the arrangement, surroundings, and environment that a piece of artwork is placed in affects the experience of the viewer. However, after spending time in the Foundation, I realized that the environment of a piece of artwork can have an extremely powerful influence on how it is experienced.

      In today’s culture it has become custom for people to do things only because society tells them they should. For example, many people will go to see the “Mona Lisa” because that is what one does if they visit the Louvre. Rather than spending time to make the emotional connection and admire the allure that made the painting famous in the first place, they spend the whole time taking substandard photos of the painting to create tangible proof that they did in fact see the “Mona Lisa.” The time that many of these viewers do spend looking at the painting is also tainted by their pre-disposed ideas of the painting based on the previous images they had seen of it, and the talk of it being “one of the greatest paintings of all time.” This shallow cultural influence on experience can be seen through “Loss of the Creature” where Percy states, “The highest point, the term the sightseer’s satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.” People have learned to experience art by walking painting to painting, reading its description, possibly noting its technique, and creating a judgment of the value of the art based on what respected art critics have said regarding the piece.

     We as a culture have assembled the idea that art is valuable given that it was made by someone great, and is relatively invaluable if it was created by someone who is not critically respected. This past October it was made incredibly apparent when the world-renowned street artist Banksy led a social experiment by setting up a small both in central park anonymously selling his art for $60 a canvas, but because no one knew they were by Banksy, barely any sold. This is evident of how even though the art was made by a famous artist and was just as good and authentic as any of his other work, due to of society’s obsession with big names being synonymous with value, the art was not given the same value it would have had it had the Bansky name attached to it.

      This is all only a generalization of how our culture experiences art, and we can see through people such as Barnes that more personal and deep experiences with art do exist. Through the arrangement and privacy of his collection, Barnes worked to eliminate the superficiality of viewing art that can easily be created in the atmosphere of a traditional museum. Barnes spent much of his life creating these meticulous art arrangements of paintings, ironworks, sketches, and sculptures, all intentionally placed into a specific pattern, allowing for the pieces of art to play off of one another, taking the focus off of one piece individually, and instead creating a whole experience that encompass entire rooms. There are no plaques illuminating the work of a famous painter, and paintings that could be regarded as “the best,” may not placed in a room of their own, but instead placed in a corner, because that is where Barnes believed it best complements the rest of the surrounding art.

      One of purposes of The Barnes Foundation is to have art viewed as a collection rather than in an individual state. Barnes would generally disregard the materialistic aspects of the artwork as defined by society, and instead created an experience based on how he thought the art would be best viewed for the individual. In the article “The Barnes Foundation, RIP” it is addressed that, “Barnes wasn’t interested in telling people what to think. He wanted to induce them to feel, to experience, for themselves.” Due to the way our culture has been developed, we are constantly being told what makes a painting great, rather than deciding that it is great for ourselves. This is why Barnes wanted the art accessible to the “everyman” rather than to critics who would analyze the paintings, removing their ability to feel the painting. “Barnes noted that he was particularly keen that ‘plain people, that is, men and women who make their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores, and similar places,’ have free access to the sustenance that art offers.” The Barnes Foundation is especially unique because although it is in limited time increments, it was created on the basis that it would be accessible to the lower class, to allow everyone to create opinions of art for themselves within an intimate and remarkably creative environment.

      Living in our modern culture has created a great importance for artistic appreciation, however it seems to have become paired with our materialistic desires that have led our perception of artwork to be skewed to our societies need to associate great art with great names, and therefore with a priceless price tag.  The Barnes Foundation allows its audience a more authentic and real experience as it does its best to strip away all of the false judgments of what makes a piece of artwork great, and instead allows its viewers to develop an opinion of their own. However, this is only possible if the audience is also willing to let go of all of their predispositions and allow themselves to make that emotional connection to a work of art. The artistic experience that Barnes intended for the viewers of his collection are wonderful, but it is up to the viewers to allow that powerful experience to occur.



"The Barnes Foundation, RIP. Notes and Comments." The New Criterion. January 2005: 1-3

The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. <>.

Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature”. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. 46-63.