Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Arguing with an exhibition

When the "Religion in Dialogue" class went back to the "Embodying the Holy" exhibition at the Rubin last week, I asked students to write a reflection: "What is the argument of the exhibition? How does it make its case, and does it succeed?" Responses were not impressive - "it doesn't have an argument, but just puts two traditions together and lets you decide what it means" was representative - but they were illuminating. They confirm my growing sense that learning how to read an art exhibition may be a very useful liberal arts skill, and perhaps especially useful for religious studies.

Not that I can really read an exhibition, either, though I've seen many! But understanding how an exhibition is put together, and how it hangs together, could resonate in useful ways with research presentations, papers, and other student projects. In all these cases, one has to put together something defined from a larger field of possibilities. One has to have a principle of relevance, and, within one's resources and elegance, strives for comprehensiveness or representativeness - and the elusive "so what?" factor. One is probably building on or responding to earlier exhibitions or collections in books, and is judged in part for the part one plays in this conversation. One wants to avoid being criticized for being superficial, trivial, too broad, random, unrepresentative - or for abusing or misrepresenting the objects one is showing.

All of these have analogs in an essay's or presentation's use of "evidence." (The catalog of potential criticisms I just offered describes many of the student essays I see.) Perhaps students would see the point of avoiding them in the highly artificial context of a college essay better if they saw the analogy? Recognizing the artifice behind a successful exhibition, especially in our visually saturated age, might powerfully make the point that the essay as skilled artifice can be useful for learning, for thinking, for assessing, for communicating.

But such an analogy could do more, because the options for persuasive citation in a museum exhibition are different from those in an essay. In many ways they are more restricted - we can cite anything that's been published, not requiring permissions (let alone the original), and of course we can cite others' citations in footnotes and bibliographies! But in other ways, the exhibition has options we don't have: how pieces are positioned, the colors of walls and lights, the relationship to other objects and to explanatory sources... And then there's the language of art itself: the power and charm and persuasiveness of figure, composition, color and material.

What if we thought of the objects of our academic research as objects in this way? Opportunities and exciting new questions abound, starting with this: In what ways are aesthetic and argumentative persuasion similar and different? (This might have been why my students thought an exhibition need and indeed should have no "argument.") Well worth thinking through, especially in religious studies, where our research objects are often more like an artifact constructed and presented in a particular way than like words on a page!

Long story short, I'm pushing for a new course on Religion and Museums for 2011-12, and I'll be the first to enroll!

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