Context Matters

Just as mise-en-scène informs the characters and their story in a film, the context in which we view art influences what we think of it. When we view a painting, for example, we not only get input from the work itself, but from the color and texture of the walls, the temperature of the room, the ongoing conversations. We become aware of the adjacent works and note how the juxtaposition of nearby pieces impacts the one upon which we are focused.

If you are one who tries to see a great deal of art, you already know that where you see the art can be almost as important as the art you see. There is a tendency to make certain assumptions about the art based on the viewing space and situation. Different venues generate different expectations and different art experiences. Consider the difference in viewing art at an auction, in a formal gallery, in a casual gallery, in a paint-spattered artist’s studio, in a tent at an art fair, in a friend’s apartment.

Consider too the other aspects of the situation. Is wine being served? In glass or plastic? Is there a crowd? Is there music? Is there lively conversation? Is there conversation at all? Are you alone or with friends? Does the lighting enhance the art? Is it daytime or evening? The list of contextual variables is almost endless.

Environmental factors are not limited to situations in which you might purchase art. There are also museums, each of which provides its own context. Sometimes that context can vary room-to-room or show-to-show. Some shows provide a great deal of solitude which allows you to really contemplate the work. This is very different from viewing art in an environment of timed entry and a docent in every doorway.

Each gallery and museum has its own unique ambiance and thus provides a different context for any piece of art under consideration. The purpose, of course, is to establish a context that will allow you to see the work under what the gallery managers and museum directors perceive to be the best possible circumstances so that you will have a greater appreciation for the work. If you have visited many galleries and museums, you have certainly noticed that some do a much better job at this than others.

Simply put, the environment, the context impacts meaning, impacts perception, impacts attraction. I know a person who saw the Michelangelo’s Pietà before it was put behind bullet-proof glass. He is very pleased to have had that opportunity, since, for him at least, the protecting acrylic diminishes the work considerably. Can anyone really believe that viewing the unprotected Mona Lisa would be the same experience as seeing the painting in its climate-controlled glass case?

Sometimes the context can be more powerful than the art. In those cases we remember the surroundings more than the work itself. Not long ago, a friend and I walked through a gallery that is rented on a per-show basis and can be modified by the tenant. The show that was opening was a photography exhibit that seemed to be very personal to the photographer.  Affixed to the walls above the photographs were somewhat clichéd quotations. The tiredness of the quotes was not the problem; the fact that all but one were crooked was.

After we left, we spent a long time discussing whether the slanting of the words was purposeful or simply careless application. In either case, it framed the environment of that particular show. That this verbal presentation became the topic of discussion rather than the art illustrates again the power of context.

The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.

[This post was originally published in the Gazette that was distributed as part of The Salon Show (February 18- March 24, 2012) at Pop Up Art House in Henderson, NV]

Date: Sunday, 20. May 2012 23:09
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Presentation

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  1. 1

    Yep. Neither life, nor art, happens in a vacuum.

  2. 2


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