Heidegger, Danto and Crowdsourcing

June 25, 2011 at 3:45 am (Uncategorized)

In the summer of 2008, I visited Munich. While there, I explored the Alte Pinakothek. Wandering through the halls, absorbed in Rubens’ depiction of the contorted, tortured figures of the damned; the air of reverence in the museum struck me. Patrons spoke nary a word, and if it was, it was in a whisper. Most of the visitors were solitary individuals, listening to art history lectures on the headphones provided by the museum. The mood of the museum was almost sacred—more akin to what one might find when visiting a cathedral than most art museums these days.

Perhaps it was the lovely experience in Munich that made Paris such a shock by contrast. The following March, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to visit the Louvre.  After waiting in security lines that rivaled most airports, I was shocked to see that most patrons were running from painting to painting, snapping a photo (with flash, no less) and promptly rushing to the next work, pushing their way through to the best position to get the next shot, then onto the next work. As I began to see stars from all the flashes that surrounded me, I looked over at the security guard who, despite the signs prohibiting flashes, had a bored and resigned look, as he remained seated in his chair. It was clear that no one was there to experience art; rather people were there to snap photos to post on Facebook so all of their friends would know that on their trip to Paris they had visited the Louvre.

Perhaps this is why the new trend of crowdsourcing distresses me so much. The museum, which ought to both educate the public and cultivate a feeling of beauty and awe, is increasingly turning to various forms of contests and polling to determine content. A recent article in Art in America, titled “Everyone’s a Critic (Or Curator)” addressed this phenomenon in a manner that was as brief as it was informative. Drawing on the famous “America’s Most Wanted” exhibition, in which the “every day person” was polled to determine their tastes in art, crowdsourcing has exploded in the art world. Stephanie Cash states,

The project was a precursor of crowdsourcing, a phenomenon gaining momentum in the art world. Known as “polling” in the political and commercial spheres, it purports to gauge the majority preference but insidiously also shapes opinion. Now not only are bloggers (expert and otherwise) and respondents weighing in on the internet, but NBA players and Average Joes are being asked to “curate” exhibitions or, as with the ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich., vote for the winner of a $250,000 prize for best artwork. [1]


Of course, there are crucial differences between crowdsourcing now and the “America’s Most Wanted” exhibition, which was as much an ironic commentary on the uneducated opinion as it was an attempt to engage the public. In After the End of Art, Danto—who considers the painting to embody the ideals of the much-maligned “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” type of art museum patron—describes the reception, stating,

The audience that evening, drinking blue vodka (to emblematize the triumph of blue in the chromatic sweepstakes) exchanging gossip and wisecracks, too skewed a population to feel anything save superiority to the implied aesthetics of the common man and woman presumably objectified in the “genuine oil painting” in the gilded frame. But would Mr. Or Ms. Whoever cry out “That’s it!” when presented with their presumed dream painting, so far as they dream of paintings at all? [2]


Danto’s words point to a long-standing division between the member of the art world, with all the requisite breeding and pedigree, in which taste is informed by the right education that provides adequate knowledge of the theory and history of art and that of the casual patron, who may never have taken a single art or art history course, but likes to visit art museums while on vacation. Indeed, it is quite possibly the underlying commentary inherent in “America’s Most Wanted” that has created the climate wherein museums feel compelled to resort to desperate measures to engage the public. After all, the common woman may not know much about art, but she knows when she’s being mocked.

However, this brings a host of other problems. Art museums need look no further than institutions of higher education to see the problem with the consumer-based, opinion-driven model of determining business practices. As student retention and student satisfaction surveys become the primary criteria for evaluating faculty, increasingly students emerge on the job market with no idea how to conduct themselves professionally, let alone problem solve. This gives way to social criticism of academia’s own self-absorption and monomania, and the most intellectual of the disciplines—the humanities—comes under fire, accused of shortchanging the students. This vicious circle has emerged from a long, bloody, brutal war: between the cultural elite (the universities) who are nonetheless dependent on the public for financial sustenance and the intellectually insecure public who nonetheless need the university to be successful and well-educated members of society.  As is often the case in long and protracted wars, both sides are losing.

In much the same way, museums’ chief aim ought to be to educate the public. Perhaps the public may see works of art that don’t fit their standards of what art “should” be, perhaps the feature exhibitions are by artists they have never heard of, but that is where the education needs to begin. One ought to feel a little bit humble when viewing a masterpiece that is 200, 500, 1000 years old or more.  They ought to experience a wide range of emotions when viewing a work of art: wonder, fear, serenity, and disgust. Indeed, if this is not occurring, I dare argue, then the artwork is not doing its job.

So, if crowdsourcing is not the answer, then what is? The answer to that comes through Martin Heidegger. Art, for Heidegger, stood to reveal truth. It was only when one slowed down enough to become absorbed in a work of art that the truth, the Being, of the thing depicted could reveal itself. In order to do this, the work needed to have preservers. Preservers didn’t mean majority opinion. Even a small group would qualify as preservers. These preservers would “know” the work. Here, Heidegger is not speaking about education, but rather states that “knowing does not consist in mere information and notions about something” [3]but rather  that the person truly knows the truth being revealed by the work. This preserving elevates it to a level more significant than mere theory. Theory might give someone an intellectual appreciation of the work in terms of its history, its formal qualities and so forth, but it doesn’t in and of itself reveal the work’s significance. Heidegger states,

Preserving the work does not reduce people to their private experiences, but brings them into affiliation with the truth that is happening in the work. Thus it grounds being for and with one another as the historical standing-out of human existence in reference to unconcealedness. Most of all, knowledge in the manner of preserving is far removed from that merely aestheticizing connoisseurship of the work’s formal aspects, its qualities and charms. Knowing as having seen is a being resolved; it is standing within the conflict that the work has fitted into the rift. [4]


Being a preserver does not require any formal training. Certainly, we still want the formal training of curators in presenting works of art that are historically important and display significant artistic achievement. However, the role of the public ought not to be that of mere consumers: the role of the public ought to be as preservers of the work in service to the work itself. The public should not be disdained, but neither should museums prostitute themselves in an effort to woo them.  Rather, an atmosphere should be cultivated in the museum which is one of deeply meaningful discovery, one that rather than trying to compete with the high-speed world of social networking, should provide a refuge from it: a place where the public can slow down and become absorbed in the work itself. If art museums wish to create an image for the public, that image should be as a place where one can escape their absorption with the world, with their lives, with all of the things that prevent them from seeing the truth of the work, of the meaning of the objects they encounter in the world, of Being itself. Here is a place where you won’t be marketed, where you won’t be rushed through, here is a place where you can experience what it’s like to view a work of art while learning about everything the work of art has to offer. The public can be empowered, but within boundaries and constraints that communicate the awe, wonder and humility that the work can bestow.


-Amy Lapisardi

[1] Stephanie Cash. “Everyone’s A Critic (Or Curator) in Art in America (May 2011), pg 40.

[2] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton University Press, 1997) pg 213

[3] Martin Heidegger “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper Collins, 1971). Pg 65.

[4] Martin Heidegger “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper Collins, 1971).