Museums are Bad at Telling us Why Art Matters [learning |2016-09-06]
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Museums are our new churches, as is commonly agreed. Millions of people flock to them to be uplifted, inspired, or distracted from everyday cares for an hour or two by encountering magnificent art. But while churches know exactly how to present art in order to foster faith and remind us of the Christian virtues, couldn't our museums do a better job at displaying art in a way that fully engages our emotions? Aren’t all those academic categories – “the 19th century”, “the Northern Italian School” – dry and dull? Aren't museums just places where great art goes to die? Why can't museums organize their collections in such a way as to convey art’s life-enhancing possibilities and even inspire us to become better people?

But isn't that taking the "art as religion" line a bit too seriously? It implies that museums have a social function, even a didactic role to play. Do we want to visit museums in order to be told by invisible curators to think and feel in a certain way? And while it may be the case that religious art was created to instruct the minds and improve the souls of the congregation, can that be said of modern art whose purpose is to challenge, question or shock the viewer? And don’t ever soaring visitor numbers prove that our museums are already doing a brilliant job?

We were joined by a panel of experts in June 2011 to debate the motion "Museums are Bad at Telling us Why Art Matters".

Arguing in favour of the motion were philosopher and author Alain de Botton; Chief Executive of the RSA Matthew Taylor; and award-winning documentary film-maker Ben Lewis.

Arguing against the motion were painter, writer and TV broadcaster Matthew Collings; Director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne; and director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon.

The debate was chaired by Tim Marlow, author broadcaster and Director of exhibitions at White Cube Gallery.

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