When you go to a museum, the good people who take you around and explain the exhibits, paintings or sculptures are not guides. They're certainly not ushers. They're called docents, thank you very much. It's a distinction with a difference, and it tells us a good deal about how the art world sees itself.
Docent comes from the Latin word docere, which means to teach. "A guide could show you around anything," says Sidney Lawrence, head of public affairs at the Hirshhorn Museum. A docent, on the other hand, is "a person who works in the sacred grove of a museum and tries to teach."
Lawrence, who loves museums but has a sense of humor about them, says with a touch of irony: "You're showing people around all these great and sacred objects," and the use of a word like docent "adds a dimension to it that's more lofty." A docent is "an Aristotelian teacher . . . someone wandering around a classical temple seeking wisdom."
The truth is that the work of docents is not confined to museums. Even zoos have them. The Virginia Zoological Park, on its Web site, invites people to become docents to "share their knowledge" of zoo animals through tours and community outreach. The Rincon Valley Union School District in Santa Rosa, Calif., has an art docent program to "stimulate, at an early age, a child's awareness of art."
The docent's task may be especially important in art museums because the language of the arts can be positively intimidating to the uninitiated. Jan Rothschild, senior director of public affairs and marketing at the Corcoran Gallery, says her job often involves "translating curatorial-speak into actual English."
Take that word curatorial. A curator's job, she says, involves "the display of an object," or "the purchase of an object." As Lawrence puts it, the curator makes "judgments about art history" and decides "what point a museum wishes to make with a work of art."
This is not to be confused, he says, with the work of a conservator, who, as the name suggests, is concerned with the condition of a painting -- as in "We're not about to put that work on display because it's about to fall apart."
Yet Lawrence adds that the boundary between the work of curator and conservator has blurred. Conservators -- using X-rays and other high-tech ways of understanding how a painting was created -- have begun to answer questions that were often unanswerable, that were once the exclusive province of curators and art historians. These include how an artist worked and how he or she applied paint to the canvas.
As in all fields, some of the language that docents are called upon to explain is purely technical. A favorite obscure word for Faith Flanagan at the Phillips Collection is gouache. Flanagan, who helps explain things to us mere journalists, notes that it is "a method of painting with opaque watercolors mixed with a preparation of gum."
Lawrence likes the workaday question "How's the signage going?" That refers to the process of putting up all those helpful signs, titles and explanations that take some of the pressure off the docents.
But true artspeak can require a great deal of work from the docents and the translators. This spring, the Corcoran put on an exhibition called "Charged Particles/A Library of Transformation One Thousand Times" by the artist John Dickson. It was a mixed media installation of 1,000 wood panels inspired by a Buddhist miracle in which the Buddha was believed to have multiplied himself 1,000 times. Viewers were encouraged to move some of the objects in the exhibit around.
Dickson described his work in this way: "The multiples have a cadence and a slow shifting pulse that fluctuate between the sacred and profane moments I experienced in India. I want to use these elements to create an arena which emphasizes accessibility and encourages interaction and discourse." Now you understand why we really need docents.
If you need further persuading, here are a couple of selections from the April issue of Artforum magazine. "Gabriel Orozco makes art about things (and people and moments) and the spaces between them," writes Katy Siegel. "Trying to see everything, you get only a blur, but look at every other thing, and a pattern emerges. The question becomes, Which things do you choose, and which does your eye (or hand) skip over?" Got that?
In another article, James Yood, argues that the lesson of an exhibition titled "post-hypnotic" is that "the viewer's mind is as viable a surface on which to work as the canvas itself."
Which, of course, makes us all artists and explains why we're always trying to explain ourselves. It's the docent thing to do.
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