Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Docent

John Haber
in New York City

A Work for Performance . . .

. . . IN THIRTEEN parts never to be enacted—but always possible. Perhaps in rehearsal this very moment, to take you by surprise at that very next encounter with art.

In each part, someone takes the role of docent, or tour guide, for a group posing as chance museum-goers. It hardly matters who plays docent for a given part; no advanced degrees required or respected. Call it art about the museum, but the performers do not notify the institution. They also take no special notice of others who, I hope, may be lured into joining the tour. From Fred Wilson's Art in Our Time (Metro Pictures, 1998)

The docent (in a picture here by Fred Wilson), like any art critic, must avoid artspeak and "martspeak" and stay plausible, even while blending into fiction. The docent's actual opinions, or even truth, may serve quite well. Since the group will take up space, chance visitors will not see alleged details in the work anyhow. Besides, interpretation makes much more sense that way.

I. Authoritative Docent

The tour gives only misinformation. The docent's patience and demeanor suggest care for the puzzled novice, but not a word is true. With one portrait at the Met, I enjoy explaining that the feather from the man's hat and his military staff form a mop. Rembrandt thus gave dignity to a janitor as common man. I like to add that the artist's love for fine uniforms nonetheless implicates him in the establishment. For a show of Vermeer's Delft, I singled out the woman holding a pitcher, reaching with her other hand for the window. I explained that she prepares to pour water on someone's head a floor below, a practice akin to dumping water balloons today. It shows how Vermeer's apparent calm internalizes the unstable attitudes reflected in his self-portrait in The Procuress and in his meager output. The performance carries on till the seed group blossoms into a large, expectant mass.

II. Expressive Docent

The docent grows increasingly moved by the work and the artist's difficult life. The performer might insist that empathy is essential to understanding art. Before long, the docent has broken down in tears and cannot continue. The audience comes forward to comfort the speaker.

III. Alternative Docents

With each room a different person parks in front of the work to speak. A tour, after all, is hardly a marine troop; as it drifts between rooms, the last docent will find ample opportunities to blend back in. Performers give no indication that anything has changed. At some point, perhaps, no one will emerge, and the tour ends in confusion.

IV. Daring Docent

With each room, the docent removes an article of clothing while speaking until . . . I hesitate to say. The gesture may seem motivated or quite unconscious. Either way, the docent should not emphasize the act and yet not behave too reasonably. Say, removing a jacket can respond to seeming discomfort, but only if the museum supplies intense air-conditioning. If a guard moves to intervene, the docent points to the work and, by a mere sign, cautions silence.

V. Hypothetical Docent

The docent's interpretations come straight from Arthur C. Danto's The Transfiguration of the Commonplace and weekly reviews, but without attribution. The very same red square, Danto proposes, could represent the Pharaoh's army after the Israelites have passed, Nirvana, a red tablecloth in the style of Henri Matisse and Matisse's joy in fabric, Moscow's Red Square, the ground for an unfinished Annunciation, or a defiant abstraction, depending on the title. The docent subjects a museum's actual display to Danto's interpretations of imagined works.

VI. Therapist Docent

The docent reaches a distinctly modern portrait, such as a woman by Matisse in wartime, the late Picasso, or de Kooning. Singling out a member of the audience, the docent asks, "How would you feel if this were your mother?" The audience member responds with a long, distraught confessional about his mother.

VII. Moral Docent

This part, too, may go best with modern art. The docent is appalled by the work and the artist's private life. No particular point of view is required. The docent might represent the moral majority's eagerness to reduce art funds or privatize museum costs, critical trends certain that male artists always brutalize and demean women, or simply politicians going through the motions. Either way, the lecture quickly descends into a denunciation of art and contemporary values.

VIII. Insider Docent

Early in the docent's explanation of contemporary art, a man enters from the opposite direction to which the tour was moving. The docent recognizes him as the artist, and they appear old friends. Increasingly ignoring the audience and gossiping, they walk off together in animated discussion.

IX. Abused Docent

An audience member politely asks a question. Has the docent ever known the artist? Well, the questioner has, and this interpretation is a rank insult. The docent throws up both arms and walks off in frustration.

X. Blind Docent

Sadly, the docent has become blind in recent years but assures the audience of continued love for the artist and first-hand knowledge. Still, the performer asks for a volunteer to help in describing the work. The volunteer has to correct the docent's memory about everything, including colors and shapes. The docent grows confused. What happened to that cute little party hat . . . ? The audience drifts away.

XI. Pagan-Ritual Docent

The audience members lift their arms and sway in unison. They kowtow a few times, then form a circle that dances slowly around the docent in single file. They remain silent and never threaten the docent.

XII. Dueling Docents

A second group enters the room and takes up a position at the opposite corner. The first docent, looking askance, speaks more loudly, so as to be heard over the newcomers. The second docent is obliged to raise the volume a bit, too. And so on, till both are shouting. The performers should make the increments frequent but small, in order to appear natural and to defer a conclusion. At no point should one party lose temper at the other's presence.

XIII. Endless Docent

The tour group moves from one room to the next, but then back to the previous room. As it shuttles back and forth, the docent's text never, ever changes.

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Believe it or not, this humor piece has been used extensively in docent training, chiefly at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on the campus of Buffalo State College. For further art education, try a brief dictionary of art terms and techniques.


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