Gallery visit: Musée du Louvre

During a recent visit to Paris I made a point of visiting a number of galleries and museums and will write them up as I have time over the days to come. It would probably have been better to document my thinking at the time, but I was in "holiday mode" and not ready to spend hours writing. Nevertheless, I did reflect on my experiences and made notes that I will draw from.

The first gallery I visited was the Musée du Louvre, something I have wanted to do for years. I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the museum and it is difficult to know where to start describing the visit. From outside it is easy to think that the collection is housed only in the older building that surround the central square, not realizing how extensive the complex is and how much of it lies underground. It is massive and would take several visits to even pretend to have covered all the exhibition space at a rapid pace. I tried to see as much as I could but I became aware that I wasn’t giving many of the works their due because of a desire to keep moving. I was also surprised at the number of visitors in February: if this is what the crowds are like during the off season, I can not imagine what it must be like when all the tourists arrive in the spring and summer. I quickly realized that I was “consuming” art rather than viewing a collection properly. After four hours, my feet decided that I had seen enough for this trip.

I was particularly taken with the portraits painted by Jacques-Louis David. I have seen a number of David’s paintings before, both on TV/video and in person at the Palais de Versailles. Many have qualities that appeal to me: technical skill, a clear story and sometimes a hint of humour or pathos. It seems to me that there is something very human about his paintings, although I know that sounds silly: all paintings are produced by humans. Somehow, though, there is a connection with the viewer that I don't necessarily sense in other painters of the period. I’ll need to think more about this, because I’m aware that I'm not expressing myself well.

I was also fascinated by the Fayum funeral masks in the Louvre's collection: these were striking because of the quality of the work and its state of repair. How much restoration has been performed on these pieces? The portraits and masks seemed representative enough that one could believe they were good likenesses of the deceased. But were they or were they idealized representations, perhaps built on some notion of the ideal or divine man or woman? Whatever the case, these were clearly meant for people of some means and it seems apparent that people millennia ago were as interested in honouring memory and leaving a good visual representation of themselves and their loved ones.

The Mona Lisa and the selfie: from contemplating the other to fixating on one’s self. By the time I had followed the signs to the gallery where this piece is hung behind a protective glass, it was obvious that I was going to visit a celebrity. Few works in the museum have their own signposts so that you can find them from several galleries away. I could have waited my turn in the long line to see the painting from a couple of metres away, but it seemed to me that the crowd itself had become the story. Many visitors, having queued up to see the painting, turned their backs on it as soon as they were in front of it so that they could take a selfie. I understand that people want to document their experiences, but many of them spent no time at all contemplating one of the world’s most famous pieces of art. They were oblivious to the object in front of them, which had little or no significance of its own. Instead it was there to validate their importance or experience. It didn't point to anything grander, more beautiful, nobler, more challenging or universal than… me.

Can a large museum be too much of a good thing, or does it require a different kind of strategy to be useful?

Reflection on tutor's feedback to Assignment 2

I am very pleased with the feedback I received from Garry on Assignment 2. I put quite a bit of effort into the work and had taken time to do additional reading and incorporate it into my writing.

My tutor’s comments lead me to believe that I am on the right track and he had no major corrections to offer. Instead, his suggested additional readings are meant to help me tease out more nuances around structuralist and postmodern thinking which will be useful as tools for analysis and interpretation as I continue my work in the program. I have taken the time to read and reflect carefully on them and have written up my learning and thoughts below. I can see quite clearly how the readings help to clarify the ‘binary oppositions’ I had identified in the opening paragraphs of the novel I chose, and how the choice and presentation of the oppositions/pairs may be unequally weighted in terms of values or ideology. In addition, what appears to be straight “description,” whether in a work of written or visual documentation, is usually nothing of the kind. The technology employed (publishing or camera, for example) has its own embedded ‘codes’ that may not be explicit and many choices have been made in terms of viewpoint and ‘language.’ The able interpreter has to be aware of these influences and consider their impact on the creation and reception of the work.

I was also pleased to be able to make connections with some of the theory (particularly rhetoric and structuralism) that was familiar to me from my studies in literature and theology. I look forward to being able to pursue them further in the program, especially work done by Barthes and others in the area of visual rhetoric.

I find that I am gaining confidence in the OCA approach to education. It’s not yet completely second nature to do everything remotely—especially from Canada, rather than the UK—but the materials are good, the feedback is helpful and the chance to be more self-directed in my study is welcome. I am beginning to think about the choices for my second course in the program and, at this point, expect that I will opt to do the photography course (Photography 1: Expressing Your Vision) next rather than the one on writing (Writing 1: Writing Skills). There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) I’d like to get into something a little more visual next (although Module 4 of Creative Arts Today is on photography and will allow me to test my interest a bit); and 2) I’ve still not decided whether to follow the Creative Arts program (writing and photography) or the Photography program (photography alone). Studying CAT and then EYV in that order allows me to delay my decision about program direction until after I’ve been able to give the photography component a good shake.

All in all, I’m happy with the way things are shaping up and have begun work on Module 3. I would, nevertheless, like to pick up the pace and will look at ways to do this.

Assignment One

Part A: Reflective learning

My understanding of what constitutes “art” is probably a little more nuanced now. Building on Grayson Perry’s idea that quality in art is arrived at by a tribe, it might be fair to say that art itself is defined by a tribe. I find this helpful because it gets me away from having to rely so heavily on the creator’s intent: there are doubtless people involved in creating art who would never use that label just as there are people who are confident that their productions are art, even if they find no appreciative audience. It might be ideal if both creator and appreciative / judging audience could agree on the definition or value of work. Perhaps the best way to see this is as an ongoing creative conversation between artist and audience(s), recognizing the impacts that changes in time and place will inevitably have on both creating and interpreting.

Over the course of Part One I’ve been introduced to a number of artists who are new to me and have appreciated starting to exercise interpretive approaches. I’ve also had the chance to spend time looking at a wider range of art forms and media than I’ve been used to. Not surprisingly for a beginner, there are large gaps in my awareness—and understanding—of contemporary artists and art forms, particularly in the area of more conceptual art. This is an area where I’d like to deepen my knowledge. I’d also like to develop a richer vocabulary to describe what I’m seeing.

As I look through my learning log I can see that I lean fairly heavily on words and photographs but have incorporated few or no sketches or scans of notes / brochures. Still, I usually have a camera or smartphone with me so it is natural for me to reach for those tools to document what I see. This reflects my areas of interest, but I think I could probably push myself a little harder—I’m not comfortable with my sketching ability, but it could only improve with practice. All told, I think the one area that would give the greatest improvement would simply be to post entries more often. I could probably do this if I relied a little less on text and more on images—not a bad thing to do as I work through a course of studies that is largely about appreciation of visual culture.


Part B: Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave

 Essay submitted to tutor in MS Word.

Reflection on tutor's feedback to Assignment 1

I'm late getting back to the coursework after some recent changes at my job and a month's holiday in Scotland. Things are back to "normal" now, so it's time to get cracking on Creative Arts Today. 

I probably put off submitting Assignment longer than I should have because I wasn't completely confident with my work or the requirements of the course. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with the OCA course materials: it's more a case of getting used to distance education rather than more customary on-site education. Assignment 1 broke the ice, though, so I'm fairly sure I'll move through the remaining assignments at a better pace.

As it turns out, I was pleased with my tutor's feedback. Garry had clearly read very carefully what I had written and I found his comments both helpful and fair. The one sticking point was that he had not received the URL for my learning blog, so he had to rely solely on the Word document that I submitted for the assignment. I did indeed include it via the OCA submission interface, but I'll make a point of including the blog's link in the Word document itself next time. 

Garry's overall comments about my writing style and content were positive and he identified a couple  of areas that I could strengthen: 

  1. some research gaps; and
  2. the need to be more specific in some of the statements I made. 

The research gaps were largely related to drawing on thinkers and critics in the arts whose work could illuminate, bolster or challenge some of the points in my paper. As a new student in the visual arts I think this is normal and I will look to broaden my knowledge of theory, criticism and performance as I progress through this course and others. I appreciate the additional references and links Garry provided and will follow up on them. I will likely blog on the pieces that I find most useful or provocative. I expect that my understanding will increase through this reflection and that my critical vocabulary will grow and allow me to express myself on the arts with greater accuracy. Expanding my understanding and "toolkit" will also help me to situate my comments within a larger conversation around art criticism and appreciation. Given the negotiated meaning (negotiated among artist, viewer, critic, etc.) and social dimensions of contemporary art, it will be important to have this degree of awareness about one's own thought and expression, and those of other people. The issue of context has multiple dimensions and it is crucial to know where one stands in relation to time, place and discourse.

I accept without reservation Garry's comment on my need to be more specific in parts of my text. As I read through what I had written I could see exactly what he meant. I don't think I need to spend a lot of time reflecting on this: it's something I need to watch for in future writing.

As I mentioned earlier, I will follow up on the additional readings and references Garry has provided. They will supplement my learning and I look forward to reading them.

Garry also mentioned that he had a grid that outlines modernist/postmodernist definitions and strategies. I have some familiarity with these in the fields of literature and philosophy, but I am sure I would benefit from seeing how they are applied in the visual arts. 

All told, I breathed a sigh of relief as I worked my way through the comments from my tutor. He spent time on what I wrote, made some encouraging remarks about my writing and thinking, and directed me to some additional sources to help deepen my work. I couldn't ask for much better than that and -- importantly for me -- the exercise provided me with a baseline for expectations. (So that's what they're looking for!) 

I've learned some things, I'm encouraged and I'm ready to work toward Assignment 2.

No complaints here.