Friday, July 20, 2012

"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous.  These three questions comprise the title of Gauguin's famous painting currently hanging in the Arcadia exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  When I was there a couple of days ago, I took the exhibit's "audio tour."  This involved wearing headphones and carrying a device as I wandered the exhibit featuring Impressionists obsessed with visions of Arcadia.  Certain pictures are labelled with a headset icon and number.  When I punched the number into my  portable device, I could listen to the voices of art historians.

The historian first described the groups of figures in Gauguin's masterpiece:  the women and baby and dog on the right,  youthful figures in the middle, a blue idol in the background, and an old woman in the left corner with a white bird.  The expert then declared that the picture does not answer the questions in the title. Huh?

Was the picture supposed to answer the questions?  Can art answer questions?  Art of all sorts tends to stimulate and inspire questions in the viewer.  As artists paint, the working out of the picture might answer their questions, just as writing blogs answers my questions (or creates more questions).  When art seems to answer questions for viewers, it is likely to be a very subjective answer.

Brief note on the audio-tour experience:

The museum was very crowded with people wearing their headsets, isolated, listening to pre-recorded comments on the works of art.  Guided tours were few and far between.  This is typical of art galleries these days, and it might seem like a good idea as a great deal of information can be communicated, and people can choose which work of art they want to hear about.

I felt isolated and cut off from other viewers, each of us in a private audio environment discouraged from interacting with one another and unable to ask questions -- the way it is on sidewalks, buses, and subways of urban environments - everyone listening to their own private playlist.


  1. From
    by b_b
    I hate the audio tour at museums. I agree its isolating, but also they have to dumb it down to point of being insulting.

  2. I agree with Lil and the comment above. I think the art tour isolates you, not only from the other viewers, but from your own feelings, observations, and -- most important -- from looking at the art itself. The tour dumbs US down, thinking we have to listen to an "expert" to "understand" the work, rather than experience it. A guided tour is better, because the docent -- especially if skilled -- will let the audience ask questions, and perhaps admit she doesn't know the answer. And in response to Lil's question about art -- I think art needs to raise questions, not answer them. Case in point: the title of Gaugin's painting. He was probably wondering about these questions, too, and asking them in paint and images as well as words.