How does art mean anything at all? A dear friend has directed my attention to Robert B. Pippin’s “In Defense of Naïve Reading,” which makes the case for taking seriously the aspects of an experience of art that lay outside of the formalized, theoretical or generalized measures of where  art meets scientific methodology.

In any experience of art, there is an initial aesthetic reaction: I like the way it looks, I enjoy the narrative, the shape is pleasing to me, or vice versa. Taking a piece of art seriously often involves another type of experience where context and history are worked into what the artwork means. Context changes, history accumulates, and different lenses are used (a psychoanalytic reading of a work will be much different from an anthropological one), so that this meaning shifts through time and space. Like a scientific hypothesis, counterpoints either reinforce or dismantle initial understandings, giving way to more refined readings. This scholarship accumulates and theoretical schools emerge. As a curator, I can look to this theory as a way of understanding what it is that I do.

However, Pippin advocates another kind of scholarship, this one personal. While art criticism can borrow from the scientific approach, “there is no particular reason to think that every aspect of the teaching of literature or film or art or all significant writing about the subject should be either an exemplification of how such a theory works or an introduction to what needs to be known in order to become a professor of such an enterprise.” Indeed, he points to those initial reactions to a work of art as exactly that which resists representation by theory. When these first responses give way to a deeper reading that conveys “practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation,” this is what he terms naïve reading.

I would like to suggest that naïve reading is a way to get from a work of art, to criticism. For whatever reason, could be aesthetic or political or any number of other criteria, when a work of art does not compel me at the first level, then I am apt to abandon the possibility of critique. However, I am prompted to take a work of art seriously when it shows me something about the personalized world I’m living in. Naïve reading can open new ways of being, and this is what I want from art as an audience member. My curatorial practice emerges from this breaking apart.


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