Imagine the following scenarios:
You are in the Rijksmuseum early in the morning before opening hours. It’s quiet. You are standing alone in front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch in a spacious gallery, other master works behind you and to your left and right.
You are sitting in a café with a friend. Music is playing. You are flipping through a travel guide of Amsterdam, where you come across a picture of Rembrandt’s Night Watch between a photo of the Red Light District and a picture of Van Gogh’sSunflowers, all surrounded by text.
In each scenario, how do you experience the painting?
When we look at art, most of our attention is focussed on the artwork on display. Rarely will we pay the same amount of attention to the display itself: the context. The moment we begin to understand the relationship between art and its context, a whole new world opens up.
In 1972, art critic/writer/painter/poet John Berger, in tandem with the BBC, made a controversial four-part television series called Ways of Seeing. In the series, regarded as one of the most influential art programmes ever made, Berger shows how the way we see things is influenced by what we know. It was said by Ratik Asokan to have been “pioneering for the ease with which it moved between analyzing the highbrow (e.g. the great masters) and the lowbrow (e.g. advertisements), [and] more importantly, for how it kicked down the supposed distinction between the two.”
In Ways of Seeing, Berger calls a painting “a corridor, connecting the moment which it represents, to the moment you are looking at it.”
This metaphor is now more relevant than ever. Most of our experiences looking at art outside of a museum are through multiple subsequent lenses: a photo taken of the original, then uploaded onto a computer from which it is posted on a website or printed, to where it finally reaches us, in illuminated pixels or ink on a page, wherever we may be at that moment. Art becomes information. Our experience of it, therefore, is entirely affected by context.
This picture is taken in front of Night Watch during Obama’s visit to Holland, where he met prime minister Mark Rutte. Seeing a photograph of world leaders looking at the painting greatly influences the way the viewer appreciates the painting within the photograph.
This is a great example of how our context contributes to our experience of a work of art. Often, these elements are not within the control of the viewer. Berger argues that “reproduction of works of art can be used by anybody for their own purposes,” suggesting that anyone can transform the narrative of an artwork by manipulation: setting, cropping, panning, overlying music, placement among text or other images.
Seeing works of art in less prestigious contexts can at times “cheapen” them. The Night Watch used in an advertisement or printed on a cup might be considered banal or kitsch, as opposed to the awe the original in the museum provokes. But artworks in such settings may equally enhance the experiences of flipping through a magazine or occupying an office space. Museums also regulate (manipulate) the environment to place the visitor into ideal art viewing circumstances.
The act of intentionally influencing the experience of the viewer is a form of service design.
John Berger’s ideas about seeing make clear that our experience of art is shaped by our selves and our environments, more so than the art itself. The experience is designed to guide the viewer into a specific kind of connection to the artwork, based on its context. The moment one takes this into account while creating and displaying art, it becomes people-centered.
Now, if you reimagine the two scenarios above, perhaps in each case you also imagine the color of the wall, the sounds, surrounding architecture, the quality of light, the smell and temperature of the air, and the feel of the floor beneath your feet, all with yourself at the center. This, with the artwork as just another element of the context, is the art experience.