December 21, 2009  |  Events & Programs
At Play, Seriously, in the Museum
Alfred H.Barr Jr.'s experimental interpretative installations for Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, 1940 and Cubism and Abstract Art, 1936 at MoMA.

Alfred H.Barr Jr.'s experimental interpretative installations for Picasso: Forty Years of His Art (1940) and Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) at MoMA

My last blog post pondered whether a museum could be a place to foster your own creativity rather than simply appreciating that of the “masters.”

In her book Museum Legs: Fatigue and Hope in the Face of Art, Amy Whitaker makes the case that “teaching people to make art can also be politically disruptive because it teaches people to have their own opinion, giving them a say.”

Marcel Duchamp was definitive on the point of viewers having a say: ”All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Duchamp’s view defies traditional assumptions about art and viewers, often considered the art museum “dance”—the museum leads, the viewer follows.

Often people think they need extensive amounts of information from experts to fully appreciate art, but all that’s really needed is the confidence and opportunity to share your thoughts and opinions, and perhaps a bit of context as a framework—a kind of a personal trainer to help guide the way, but not do the “creative work” of interpretation.

The current exhibition Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, about an art school and social experiment, provided a platform for us to start thinking again about participatory experiences through making art. Alfred H, Barr, Jr., the founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, said,  “I regard the three days which I spent at the Bauhaus in 1928 as one of the most important incidents in my own education.” Barr’s organization of MoMA’s departments by discipline and his inclusion of design and architecture (and at one time a theater department) are often credited to Bauhaus influence. But his deep commitment to education and innovative modern pedagogy are not often considered.

Picture 5

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.'s "torpedo" diagrams of the ideal permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, 1941.

Barr is best known for his “torpedo” diagrams, but his little-known experiments in the galleries, which incorporated highly didactic and unconventional exhibition installations and labels, speak more to his commitment to helping people make sense of modern art and less about canonizing objects for posterity.

1942 wall label Barr used to engage and elicit response from viewers.

1942 wall label Barr used to engage and elicit response from viewers.

To Barr, the museum was a “laboratory” for educational experimentation. He used a variety of teaching techniques in his installations, including comparisons, questions, and juxtaposing mediums. Even humor was not off limits—this 1941 photograph, unearthed by my colleague Juliet Kinchin, a curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, shows a gallery installation by curator Elliot Noyes that playfully mocks an overstuffed chair.

Critique of the “horrible, overstuffed easy chair, by curator Elliot Noyes, 1941.

Critique of the “horrible, overstuffed easy chair", by curator Elliot Noyes, 1941.

Although not physically near the exhibition, the Bauhaus Lab still invites visitors to experiment and “play” with ideas through art making, using both the traditional Bauhaus curricula and more contemporary riffs, like Machine Project’s Walking Tables and Wrestling Foals table-making workshop and movement, music, and poetry performance.

“Play” is the critical word here. How little chance do we have as adults to play and experiment in daily life? Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was definitely onto something when he wrote, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” The Bauhaus curriculum, informed by over 150 years of German educational pedagogy, put play at its core. Artists have continued to use play to fuel their own ideas and work. The pristine galleries of art objects do not allow for artists’ processes, which are experiential in nature. Perhaps we need to think more creatively about how to make artists’ processes more salient to understanding and appreciating modern and contemporary art.

I’m increasingly convinced that we need to more seriously consider art making as a means of engaging with the art of our times—and that creating can take a wide range of forms and can exist on new as well as more traditional platforms. At MoMA, families, teens, and adults in registered classes can participate in hands-on, investigative art education programs, but I wonder: How could we offer such experiences to the general visitor who is here to see art more informally?