Enter any museum, traditional, contemporary, technological, scientific, historical, and you see people moving slowly, standing quietly, observing. All well and good. People arrive in museums to learn and understand art. They study the installation; they ingest the presented explanation and interpretation. Perfectly reasonable and expected.
As a young person taken to the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery, the Huntingdon, the Vatican, the Louvre, the MET, the Getty, the Institute of Art, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field, the Museum of Civilization, and hundreds of small collections in between, I was taught to appreciate what was before me. I was taught to accept the greatness of the masters and the profound expressions preserved in the installations. Art was sheltered, untouchable and intellectual.
Ekphrasis, as defined by the Poetry Foundation, is a poem that vividly describes a piece of visual art, whether painting, sketch or sculpture. It is a direct response to what is offered in the original artwork and brought once again to life through written art. Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is one of the most famous examples. We admire art because of its craft and its execution. We are amazed by innovative technique and traditional finesse. But underneath, we crave art because it has something to say. Right?
When I first entered MassMOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and then Dia in Beacon, New York, something shook loose, I learned to chafe at the one-way conversation. I began to talk back. Now I step up to any work of art and examine what it is doing to me. I notice whether I am excited, tickled, afraid, curious, irritated, bored, haunted, sad. And instead of attending to the work’s ability to evoke these emotions, I attend to what is happening to me. Exactly where in my imagination or memory does this piece of art touch? I allow my art to begin. I answer with my voice on the page. It may be very connected to the subject and approach of the art in the museum. Or it may only be peripherally connected. What matters at this moment is that it’s my moment to begin creating what is closest to my self-expression.
When you enter a museum, whether of art, science, or history, what happens to you? Do you stand before art and witness inspiration? Do you marvel at the galaxy of ways that human beings have shown their heart and intellect? Of course you do; we all do. But are you, yourself, inspired? It’s an important distinction, one I offer to my writers. During the museum writing retreats I lead, I show writers how to participate in the dialogue that’s being offered.
It’s the difference between asking: “what is this piece of art expressing?” and “what does this piece of art say to me? How does it make me feel? What effect does it have on me?” It doesn’t matter why, or even necessarily how. What matters is your reaction to the art. That’s where the conversation begins. The rest of the conversation is up to you: what does it generate inside you? Memory? Imagination? Does it conjure up images, a rhythm, a voice? What happens if you are to swap passivity for assertion? What happens if you have something to say as well? What happens if your voice enters the hallowed halls of the MET?
Ekphrasis, as I practice it, is call and response.
It’s You showed me yours, now I’ll show you mine.
It’s I see you and hear you. Now I’m going to see me and hear me.
A writing retreat in a museum is freedom, an extravagant and exuberant adventure into yourself. Your voice matters most. The art serves as prompts or vehicles to get you to your own artistic expression. The art gives permission to experiment and take risks. Not one of the artists whose works are displayed played it safe; they wouldn’t be in the museum if they had. Through each work of art, a fellow artist is saying, Go for it! What do you want to create?
Museums are vociferous places, full of deep, rich, plaintive statements. They are alive with invitations to join in, engage, play or sorrow along with the honored artists. Museums are places where you are accepted as an Artist.
Maureen Jones is a poet, novelist and writing teacher. The author of Blessed are the Menial Chores (2012), a book of poems, she is the Executive Director of Amherst Writers and Artists, in Amherst, MA. You can read more about her work, and her workshop held around the country, here.