The Art Experience: Contemplative or Energized?

Art Museums are grappling with a “plugged in” public obsessed with technology and having an “experience.” How do museums satisfy this public without falling into the entertainment trap? Is social practice art a key solution to avoiding this trap?

Thresholds by Quynh Vantu at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation. Photo by

Thresholds by Quynh Vantu at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation. Photo by Mert Jones. Photo courtesy of the McColl Center.

Since the 1970’s museums have more significantly changed their focus as repositories for cultural treasures to become more education oriented, inclusive, engaged with their communities, and experiential. Nowadays, museums must prove their worth beyond mere storehouses of art if they are to receive grant funds, attract visitors, and basically survive. Art, too, has followed a parallel path with artists seeking to break the barriers between themselves and the viewers of art. Artists have increased their social impact through activist art and expanded on the experiential potential of art through participatory, temporal, and connective art works.

But art and museums have always been about an experience. In the past, the emphasis was on a contemplative, largely passive experience – one that transformed the viewer through awe or spiritual uplift. Indeed, many museums both in the United States and Europe intended this transformation along with their primary purpose as repositories. The founders and boards of trustees hoped their museums would improve society both culturally and socially, uplifting the masses whom they welcomed in on free admission Sundays, often the only day the laboring classes had off work. Wealthy Gilded Age Americans concerned about the influx of immigrants touted American museums as a way to indoctrinate immigrants into American values and culture.[1]

These museums helped create this type of experience through their architecture. Just think of the temple like structures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Philadelphia Museum of Art with their grand porticos, marble floors, and massive sets of stairs meant to inspire religious like observance and deference.[2] In the post-World War II art world there was a movement away from this type of overly decorated exhibition space to galleries with sparse ornamentation. Walls were painted white and striped of ornate moldings, and art was hung widely spaced. However, the “white cube” as Brian O’Doherty termed this display style was still about contemplation. Currently, the pendulum is swinging away from the “white cube” back to a more sensory gallery space, but not necessarily in concurrence with the reverential behavior intended by Gilded Age art temples.

This type of contemplative art and museum experience feels outdated to many of us today. It has been under assault for quite some time from a variety of quarters not least of which is artists themselves. No, today, museums by and large feel more active, engaging, and experiential. The white cube is on the wane.

Why? Because we as a culture increasingly do not learn or engage this way, and how could we with Facebook and Twitter connecting us instantaneously and simultaneously over often trivial babble; with educators focused on the interactive classroom; and with “the experience economy” booming. Blame what you will, but the reality is we want and expect an interactive experience when we go through museum doors. Museums cannot remain temples to art where visitors always feel forced to walk on tip-toe and speak in whispers.

On the other hand, I fully understand where critics like Judith Dobrzynski are coming from with her article of last Fall “High Culture Goes Hands-On.” Something will be lost if the opportunity for contemplative experiences is gone from museums. Yet, let us look at this for exactly what it is — a threat, not a reality. A threat that most museums are handling rather well, achieving a balance between providing interactive experiences and spaces in which to quietly contemplate art.

The key to this balancing act is recognizing the difference between experiences that are merely entertainment versus participatory experiences with art that make visitors think. Museums are achieving this balance by incorporating gallery interactives, hosting engaging programming, and providing social spaces. It should also be achieved through exhibiting social practice art. “Art that’s socially engaged, where the social interaction is at some level the art,” as Tom Finkelpearl describes it.

Social practice art, often also called interactive art or participatory art, in some way encourages the viewer to engage directly with the art or artist either forcing viewers’ physical actions, manipulating their senses, or sharing creative expression with them. This type of art has been on the rise since the 1970’s with much earlier precedents like the Surrealists hands-on events in Paris; the “Happenings” of Allan Kaprow in the 1950’s and 60’s; the feminist art of Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago in Womanhouse; or Graciela Carnivale’s Experimental Art Cycle.

Nonetheless, social practice art has become more mainstream with college art programs even offering concentrations in social practice. This popularity is hardly surprising given the “plugged in” nature of our culture and our habitual interactivity. Social practice art appeals to us. Why it appeals to artists as a mode of artistic practice may seem more obscure.

Leaving aside artists’ given situation in this same “plugged in” culture, social practice art is often created with activism in mind. Much of these artworks are aimed at raising awareness of social and environmental problems, alleviating these conditions, and empowering people to create change. The noble intentions of social practice artists with activist goals cannot be dismissed as hyperbole.

In What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Finkelpearl suggests artists’ choice of social practice may stem from a rejection of the art market. The ephemeral nature of much of this artwork with little salable material supports his argument. He furthers that “it’s a reaction against the excesses of individualism.” Modern art upheld individual expression as the pinnacle of artistic endeavor, so a swing away from this seems reasonable in contemporary art.

A Jeli's Tale: An Anthology of Kinship by Samantha Hill at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation

A Jeli’s Tale: An Anthology of Kinship at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation by Samantha Hill. Photo courtesy of the McColl Center.

A recent conversation I had with multi-media, installation artist, Samantha Hill, about practicing what she terms “experiential art” supports Finkelpearl’s explanations. “I’m interested in these philosophical discussions and interpretations of culture,” she said, “but I’m doing it in the art realm. I throw out a question to start a dialog. Experiential art allows me to ask more questions and learn about people – to connect with more people.”

Hill’s art practice is very much focused outward to listen and engage with the world around her, significantly rejecting modern art’s obsession with individual expression. Her work is multi-disciplinary, combining oral history, archival work, multimedia installations, public interaction, and performance. Hill’s latest work, The Kinship Project is an archive of 145 years of family photography, oral history recordings, artifacts, and ephemera. She uses this collection as source material for social engagement installations like The Jeli’s Tale: An Anthology of Kinship and The Great Migration at the Southside Hub of Production in Chicago.

The Great Migration installation (interior) on the roof of the South Side Hub of Production by Samantha Hill.

The Great Migration installation (interior) on the roof of the South Side Hub of Production by Samantha Hill.

Furthermore, Hill wants to share ownership of her site-specific installations, viewing them almost as science experiments where she can step back and see what happens. “My way of creating is to let the project unfold. It will depend on the participants I interview and photograph. Its about them. My installations are experiential to activate all five senses at once, so I also want the viewers to take ownership of my projects. Have a conversation with each other. Get past the gallery etiquette and touch the art.”

Experiential art is also an answer to today’s technology centered world proclaimed Hill: “People need a different kind of activation because we are stimulated by so much media we don’t even know how to think straight, so we need something to get us hyper focused. You can activate people with a lot of tactile stimuli.”

For Hill, the end goal is the conversation – the interaction between people: “I like to play. I like to play a lot, and when I make something that is interactive, I am in the process of playing. Then by allowing my audience to participate in the work with me it is like we are all on the playground learning a new game together.”

The McColl Center for Art + Innovation

The McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Samantha Hill completed a residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation (previously the McColl Center for Visual Art) in November 2013. While in Charlotte, she worked with the residents of Double Oaks neighborhood which is being converted to Brightwalk, a planned mixed income housing community, to capture their memories and stories of the neighborhood as well as its transformation. In the near future, Hill will be using this material, much of which she captured with a tintype camera, to create an interactive installation in a historic location in Charlotte.

Social practice art is clearly popular, since it has spread beyond the “art capitols” of New York City, Paris, and London. Here in the Queen City, we have had multiple opportunities of late to participate in social practice art with the residences of Samantha Hill, Quynh Vantu and Mel Chin at the McColl Center. Who that created a Fundred Dollar Bill can forget the empowerment that came from this type of democratic expression through art. Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill is scheduled for completion this year with all of the Fundreds to be delivered to Washington, D.C. where this art currency will promote solutions to the lead contamination of cities.

Vantu’s Thresholds, which re-imagined the first-floor gallery and entrance of the McColl Center using fabric and light, made participants out of passive visitors. As you walked through Thresholds the installation forced you to physically act and move in certain ways because of its construction, and then with the addition of other people in the same space, you had to negotiate how to act and move with them and the installation. Vantu is vested in exploring the social interaction that occurs with and because of the built environment. The active and unique space of a threshold recurs in Vantu’s art as it is this space where people are frequently moving in and out that enhances social engagement.

As the introductory label to the exhibition put it: “In midst of this technological age, digital networks and virtual realms are being constructed at a staggering rate. It enables and subsequently rewards our most insular and private impulses. Qunyh Vantu’s Thresholds serves to gracefully guide us back to a tangible reality through a series of shared experiences with ourselves and a community.”

This type of interaction between people is at the heart of social practice art. Artists like Hill and Vantu are facilitating personal encounters – something we seem to have lost or devalued in the “plugged in” atmosphere we inhabit. Ironically, the tools that were supposed to create greater connection have increased distance – we prefer the impersonal nature of an e-mail to the timbre of a voice over the phone. Hill, Vantu, Chin, and other social practice artists are reacting against this distance to promote more face to face interaction, conversation, and connection.

Some critics label these artworks as too experiential and imply that they are superficial, bordering on entertainment. They suggest this only feeds into a culture obsessed with experiences. But, maybe, this is better than a culture obsessed with materialism? Some experiences created by social practice art might be frivolous, but the majority I have participated in are not. They create connection, and isn’t a meaningful experience what art is all about? Whether your experience is contemplative or energized, shouldn’t museums provide both?


Interested in this topic? Check out Read It: The Art Experience


[1] The major art museums in the United States were founded in the mid-1800’s as wealthy Americans acquired cultural objects from Europe and founded repositories for these objects d’art.

[2] For further discussion of the ritualized experience of art museums see Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, “The Universal Survey Museum, “ in Museum Studies: An Anthrology of Contexts, ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell publishing, 2004).

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