Seeking the sublime – the museum as a spiritual space

Rijksmuseum

In her provocative blog, “What are Museums for, Anyway,” Renee Garfinkel brings a large historical perspective to the museum’s role in our lives. She says, “museums are no longer the province of the elite and the expert…They have become democratized. … Today’s museums have educational and social roles.” And indeed, in the last few centuries, museums have become wonderful vehicles for presenting science, history, every field of knowledge. Art is also certainly well served by this institution, exposing modern man to the beauty of great paintings and sculpture throughout the ages, rather than sequestering precious collections in the palaces and estates of the wealthy.

But democratization also underscores the need for a more existential approach to art. Since art is non-discursive, and contemporary art is  frequently, non- figurative, it is often difficult to process what one is seeing, translate  it into one’s own terms. And this creates discomfort. with two contrasting reactions to this discomfort. A certain pretentiousness can be frequently observed in art museums, people assuming pseudo-expertise postures. (that does not mean that there is not true expertise and understanding among museumophils)

But I am frankly suspicious of those who talk in the high-minded tone of the aficionado, the initiated of the secret society, he who has access to special knowledge. On the other hand, the discomfort, particularly in face of abstract art, where there is no realistic hook to help interpret what we are seeing, often elicits a certain frustration. Embarrassed at their lack of understanding, but at least true to their own reactions, many people dismiss the work of art. “Now tell me, can’t a kindergarten child do this?”

I would like to suggest that, in addition to viewing art in terms of its democratic, social, and educational roles,the art museum should be seen as a  ”spiritual space.” To enter a museum, is to enter a cathedral, a temple, a mosque, to experience the grandeur of Nature, or the “small still voice” of chamber music. It should be suffused with what the second century rhetorician, Longinus, called a sense of the sublime… something that elevates the soul into an ecstasy so that the soul participates in the splendors of  the divinity,” of being uplifted, man going beyond himself.  The museum should create an atmosphere, yes,- I would even say of  holiness- that allows for deep concentration, rather than many of the gimmicky techniques that are thought to be educational. The paradox is that  only by focussing on an object, perhaps as in Zen meditation, can one go beyond it, by being humble, giving oneself to the art work, allowing the lines and colors and images,the sense of movement, play upon the self, that one penetrates to its spiritual essence. It is only by “seeing into the object,” what the nineteenth century philosopher Theodor Lipps called “einfuhling,” “feeling into,” empathizing with the object that we can avoid pretentious or resentful reactions to what is ultimately, man’s evocation of the spirit.

No prior conditioning is needed to experience the power of beauty and human creativity. It is within the reach of every museum visitor, for the more you look, the more you see.

About the Author
Rochelle Furstenberg is a journalist and literary critic who has written extensively on literary and cultural topics.
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