How to find meaning in art (hint: you don’t need a tour guide)

     A visitor to the Philadelphia Museum of Art views the French painter Fernand Léger's 1919 painting

    A visitor to the Philadelphia Museum of Art views the French painter Fernand Léger's 1919 painting "The City." (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    As I waited in line to see the “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this past weekend, I was asked whether or not I wanted the audio tour. While I hesitated for a moment, my girlfriend immediately said no. I was glad that she did.

    I love art but have never studied it. When I go to a museum, there are times when I feel at a loss for what to think or understand. I want to learn or at least appreciate something before I leave, so I wander around with a faint apprehension as I tour the galleries.

    This day, I had a different experience. I attempted to approach paintings without looking at the adjoining placard. I realized that when I did this, I actually saw more. I noticed details and themes on my own. I saw the billows of smoke, the street signs, the mechanical people, the bright urban colors, and the buildings in the exhibition’s highlight piece, Fernand Léger’s “The City.” I saw two of the three central images in Picasso’s mixed-media collage: “Bowl with Fruit, Violin, and Wineglass.”

    A new way of seeing, beyond art

    In the past, my impulse has been to read the name and description first. I would look at the placard, then the painting. I would attempt to find something from the title or description. Then, I would cheerfully pat myself on the back if I saw something, or I would turn surlily and conclude that the painting wasn’t very good anyway.

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    Any art lover would agree that art has much more to offer. As an educator myself, I am afraid that there may even be broader implications for how we as a society are educated and habitually process meaning for ourselves.

    As I stood in front of “The City,” I took a moment to listen to my surroundings. Do you know what I heard? The sound of everyone’s audio guide. It was a discernible sound of murmuring art curators telling the visitors about the selection of works in the exhibition. I looked around, and I saw people merely glance at paintings while listening intently to their guide, which was glued to their ears. They anxiously waited for the audio tour to make meaning for them, rather than putting themselves in a position to see and experience the art. They put a barrier between themselves and the paintings.

    As an English teacher in Philadelphia, one of my primary goals is for my students to develop their ability to independently make meaning from texts. I define a text in the broadest sense of the word; therefore, in any context in which we are attempting to make meaning, a text is present. This could be a novel or a poem, but it could also be a building, a facial expression, a sports event, or a painting.

    While I encourage independence of thought in my students, I have not always maintained this standard for myself. In art museums, I have relied on sources beyond myself to make meaning of texts that are right in front of me. While I do not deny that the guidance of an art historian can open the door to new levels of understanding and appreciation, I am afraid that we are all missing out on rich experiences in our world when we rely on others to make meaning of texts for us.

    We miss out on ourselves, and what we bring to our experiences and interpretations. Everyone has the capacity to construct meaning for him or herself. When we engage in our own ability to think, we see more, we learn more, and we can actually have more fun.

    Luke Zeller teaches English at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber.

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