Behind the Scenes, Education

Art and Power

Looking at art in the North Pavilion galleries at the Getty Center

“Focus is power,” said theater director Peter Sellars to a packed crowd at the American Association of Museums annual meeting earlier this year. Artworks can make you recognize things you instinctively knew but weren’t able to articulate. They bring ideas into focus. This recognition is empowering; when we can name an idea or emotion, we are compelled to deal with it.

Titled “Art as Social Action,” Sellars’s lecture emphasized the importance of nourishing the creative soul of each person. He identified creativity itself as an act of political rebellion, because ruling social systems do not want a populace of independent and critical thinkers. He suggested that if we could take the flame of creativity and spread it, the power would be deafening.

Sellars’s belief in the importance of art was palpable—and heartwarming. To him, an artist is a truth teller, willing to explore the dark and hidden parts of life and then share the results of this dangerous and exhilarating journey. As the keeper of artists’ works, the museum is not a house of decorations; it is a site for discovery, challenge, and revolution.

Renew yourself in the oasis of ideas and beauty—but don’t stop there, said Sellars. Take what you’ve learned and venture back into the messy, blinding world. You will see it with different eyes; you will question the status quo of politics, wars, advertisements, friendships. You will remove the veils and take action.

This journey of the artist, the search for subject and how to organize it into composition, is one I know well. Hours, days, weeks alone in the studio set the stage for contemplation and persistence.

But as a gallery teacher—as the person talking about art and ideas that someone else articulated, leading groups of visitors through bustling galleries for one hour—this noble goal of sparking epiphanies becomes harder to realize. How can I achieve clarity when visitors are immersed in so many stimuli?

For me, Sellars’s ability to move the crowd at AAM demonstrated a way. His oratory, shifting from whispers to shouts, and his descriptions of topics as personal as romantic relationships and as public as the prison system, was unpredictable and kept listeners eager to hear more. His words of love and acknowledgment of human hopes and disappointments beautifully addressed many things I’ve thought about—as he might say, “things I instinctively knew but hadn’t named.”

Those of us who work at museums need to make time to find the power in the objects and let it move through us. We need to talk to visitors about content we have recognized and, as Sellars suggests, “ask deep and beautiful questions,” for we so often find what we are looking for.

His inspiring words were heightened by a sparrow lost in the conference room. It became a metaphor for us. I wanted to tell it: Go out the double doors, down the hall; turn left and descend the stairs, the light will become stronger and show you the way outside, then you are free.

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One Comment

  1. Jennifer S. Li
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    A poignant piece on the power of art. Artists have the rare ability to give concrete form to issues, emotions and events that most only have ephermeral reactions to, whether through anger, laughter or tears.

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      It’s been 125 years since Van Gogh’s death, today we celebrate his life’s work.

      5 Ways to See Van Gogh’s Irises

      Through observations, visitor conversations, and some sneaky eavesdropping, we’ve compiled the top 5 ways people enjoy this painting.

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        One of the most obvious ways that people see the painting is in a crowd. The gallery is almost always filled, and you might have to wait before you can get up close. The anticipation builds as you start in the back row, and slowly move until you are close enough to see the brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s thick paint.

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      3. Alone
        If you arrive right at 10 a.m. when the museum opens, the quiet gallery provides a perfect backdrop to really examine the painting. Solitude and seclusion gives the gallery a sense of intimacy. 

      4. Multiple Times
        Repeat visits can give rise to multiple interpretations. Is it a melancholy or joyous painting? Expressive or depressive? 

      5. Internationally
        Visitors from all across the world viewed this famous Van Gogh. In just one hour I heard multiple languages—French, Italian, Chinese, Korean, German, and more. Irises seems to rise above cultural boundaries—a Dutch painting inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints—to strike an emotional resonance amongst all viewers. 

      What is your favorite lens to view Van Gogh’s work through? 


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