"Yes, but is it Aaaht?"
Observing the Process of Sacralization in Art
Krista Harper, Instructor
This paper is an observation of the sacralization of art and a discussion of how the "Keepers of Culture" have entextualized and sacralized what they perceive as "Art," regardless of the intent of the artists, those hired to man the displays, or the viewing public. I noticed this process when I went to the San Jose Museum of Art, which currently has two very different types of exhibitions on display: the smaller is Selections from the Gund Collection of Western Art; the larger an exhibition titled Elvis + Marilyn: 2 X Immortal. After observation of both the displays and the audience, I asked questions of some of the museum visitors, and a museum security guard. The discussion with the museum employee will show how non-intentional and unconscious the process of sacralization is. The interviews with and observation of the viewing public will demonstrate how the audience unwittingly both accedes and assists in sacralization, even when they do not consider the viewed objects to be "real" art, and how thoroughly this process is a part of the hegemony of this culture.
In his book Highbrow/Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence W. Levine discusses how the popular entertainments of the day in the eighteenth century were changed over, by the nineteenth century, into elite symbols of refinement, via the process of sacralization. He discusses several components of this process: rigidification of the original work; belief in the cultural version of the "trickle down" theory; the need for education in order to 'understand' art; the belief in 'Culture' and 'Art' as civilizing forces which teach 'purity' and 'truth' and maintain 'order;' the maintenance of large, imposing buildings with reverently quiet staffs to maintain them. He demonstrates the essentially Durkheimian nature of the society's views on Culture and Art. Durkheim's definition of a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things that unites a single moral community. Just as true art is supposed to elevate one's thoughts to the metaphysical, just as rules for moral discipline and conduct are implemented for and supposedly created by the observation of art, so too does a religion function for a society. As Durkheim has pointed out, a belief in supernatural beings is not necessary; more important is a clear division between the sacred (with all its attendant rituals and prohibitions), and the profane. This definition validates Levine's comparison of art and religion, and his examination of the society's categorization of art as 'highbrow' and 'lowbrow.' 'Highbrow' art is the hypostatized totem the culture worhips, in order to worship itself. This sacralization is shown, as Levine puts it, in the current belief in the:
...rituals accompanying that appreciation [of expressive culture]; ... that the aesthetic products of high culture were originally created to be appreciated in precisely the manner ... Americans were taught to observe: with reverent, informed, disciplined seriousness (Levine 1988:229).
I believe this process is still occurring today in our culture. Just as subcultural styles are incorporated back into the mainstream, so is current popular media and art being incorporated into the 'mainstream' of Art, sacralized and transformed into something different, something 'pure,' something that the subjects of the artistic endeavors, and possibly even the creators of the pieces themselves, might not recognize. According to Durkheim, totemic objects must be invested with sacred energy by the society, as well as contain the sacred energy within them. Through this process, religious symbols allow the community to create and worship itself. In a sense, the sacralization of newer art forms is a demonstration of the culture investing those art forms with sacred energy. Newer forms of art are incompletely absorbed into the culture, thus not yet able to help the culture re-create itself. However, given time, the process of sacralization will produce a new 'religious' symbol for and within the culture.
The process of sacralization begins the moment you approach the area in which the museum is located. It is downtown in San Jose, in a large rotunda or block of buildings all reserved for 'cultural' sorts of things. There is the museum, the large and blocky building for the San Jose Civic Light Opera, a small library, several old historic monuments, a little park (which is mostly just a patch of grass between crossing roads, containing a dreadful piece of sculpture), another museum of technical works, the San Jose Theatre-Works building, and nearby the enormous San Jose amphitheater. It is interesting to note that this area is not set up for strolling passers-by. The light rail and trolley pass near, but do not enter the area, and if you are driving it is necessary to park in a parking garage for a $3 fee.
The physical layout of this block reminded me of a rough geographic analogy of Benedict Anderson's three categories necessary for empire, as he mentions them in his book Imagined Communities. Exclusivity was maintained as follows: it was difficult to arrive at the museum, thus offering priviledged access to car owners to the museum's 'truths;' there was an obvious hierarchy of building structure to be seen in approaching the museum which favored well-dressed and probably mostly white patrons; and the approach was neither intuitive nor linear, thus ensuring no casual strollers would easily find the museum. I found myself wondering if this was an unconscious byproduct of a desire to keep the 'riffraff' out, assuming the riffraff don't own cars or wish to struggle with navigating this poorly marked area - I would not care to come here if I did not have a destination in mind, or if I was not sure of my directions.
Continuing on to the museum proper you see a large stone building with a clock tower, ponderous and imposing. You enter from the side, passing across a marble stone-like plaza with few places for greenery and no benches - one is not encouraged to linger here. The museum's huge opening foyer oppresses and overwhelms, its size reducing one to insignificance. It is two stories high, an echoing, empty area, and people entering tend to automatically mute their voices. There are three enormous and colorful glass sculptures hanging from the foyer ceiling, and it was a testament to me of the subduing effect of the entrance that most of the entering people never noticed these. The public is guided and directed; dark blue ropes steer you to the ticket counter, where you receive a quick lecture on where you are allowed to go in the museum and what is currently on display. After that the lecturer/ticket seller asks if you wish to buy tickets. However, he politely refused to answer any of my questions, perhaps due to the presence of two other impersonal, uniformed museum employees nearby. Curiously enough, the ticket sellers were in neat but casual clothes, while the people in the museum proper were in a sort of uniform consisting of dark pants and jacket over a dark blazer and white shirt.
There are also hand-outs and flyers at the ticket counter, including one titled "A Guide for First-Time Visitors." It is there to help you "enjoy and understand the art on display" (San Jose Museum of Art flier 1996:1). It contains maps and general information, as well as a section called "Protecting the Artwork" which dictates how one should behave in the museum. The guidelines include sections telling one to monitor one's children, to check all large objects so the artwork is not inadvertently bumped; that food, drink, and photography are not allowed; that pens are not to be used in the galleries and pencils can be borrowed from the Admissions Desk. Indeed, the best indicator of the reverence with which one is supposed to approach the artwork is the first subheading - a large, bold, "Do Not Touch." As these environmental contextual cues demonstrate, Levine's version of 'highbrow' art is still alive and well within the culture. However, it is not only the environment and its care-takers which creates and informs the current hegemonic idealization of art. The audience itself assists in this creation. For examples, I will refer to the exhibitions I observed.
The Selections from the Gund Collection of Western Art is displayed downstairs in the museum. The room is small, with about two dozen pieces in the display, all closely placed, all covered in glass. The sculptures and paintings are regularly arranged along the outer walls or placed on pedestals at a height of about 5 1/2 feet. The art style is realistic and representational, the 'Western classical' form of art, and show-cases the cowboy and the American old West. There are no fliers or explanatory plaques on the walls, and the impression one gets is that this is Art which can stand on its own without explanation or apology. However, a useful comparison may be made between Radway's romance writers and the painters of the artwork I observed. According to Radway, many romance readers go on to become writers; the audience continues and preserves that which it likes best about its particular art form. In a similar fashion, one of the painters displayed was Charles Russell, a former cowboy that took up painting to catalogue and preserve his world before it ceased to exist. I suspect others of the artists displayed followed similar endeavors. One of Levine's assertions is that highbrow art maintains a separation between artist and audience, while lowbrow art breaks that norm. Today, the Gund Collection and related art topics are obviously considered highbrow. Art from the old West concerns an idealized, now-past time; sells for phenomenal prices; and art critics and vendors have made their reputations and livings on it. However, as a former member of the audience that became one of the creators of the art on display, Russell demonstrates how his form of creation was not initially considered highbrow. Thus we can see that sacralization of art occurred in the past.
As a comparison to the Gund Collection, let us examine the other exhibition in the museum. It is by far the larger of the two exhibitions, titled Elvis + Marilyn: 2 X Immortal. It is upstairs in a huge, attractive, airy hall with several side rooms, and has just enough echo to make voices reverberate mutedly. I quote from the museum's handout on the display:
In Elvis + Marilyn: 2 X Immortal, we present more than 100 works of art - paintings, sculpture, photographs, mixed media, and installation pieces - created by 85 artist between 1955 and 1994. Organized into broadly defined areas of cultural, heroic, religious, and iconic perceptions, some of these artworks will validate, while others may challenge, our common experiences of Elvis and Marilyn. All of them will help us begin to understand why these two people have become such enduring icons in our society.
The impression I received from the handout was that the audience had at the least contributed to this particular art form, at the most had created it entirely; according to Levine this qualifies the art form in question as unreservedly lowbrow. Further contributing to its lowbrow nature is its massive popularity. Levine's meme seems to run as follows: if the masses like something it cannot possibly be highbrow.
Yet closer examination of both the handout and the environment surrounding the exhibition demonstrates sacralization in process. Some of the elements were clear and obvious; others took a bit more observation to notice. The immense hall demonstrates reverence by its reservation of a large amount of space for proper contemplation of each piece, and incidentally increases the sense of distance between audience and art. The uniformed museum attendants radiate quiet watchfulness for improper behavior. There is a small shop outside the exhibition which was selling objects carrying the logos of both the museum and the exhibition, and nearby was a nicely appointed display of memorabilia for sale via silent bid - very tasteful, very proper and understated. The almost lecturing tone taken by the handout clearly shows its attempts to educate; education is supposedly required to properly appreciate true art. Indeed, there is a small note at the bottom of the handout telling us the display has an "Educational programming consultant." Each piece is carefully placed a particular distance from every other, so that there is no overlapping of view. With the exception of some strategically placed mirrors, and one multi-media display that contained a video monitor, none of the pieces invited the audience to participate or contribute - was this perhaps an indicator of the strength of the hegemonic ideal of separation between audience and art, such that the creators themselves could not create participative art? Interestingly enough, the display with the mirrors consisted of pictures of Marilyn and Elvis with the faces cut out, so that one could crouch and peer through the hole, seeing oneself in the mirror with the body of Elvis or Marilyn. The explicative plaques invited the audience to deliberately attempt to rethink what society demands as gender roles in general. A side effect of this was also an attempt to break down the barrier between audience and art. However, I did not see anyone actually try - perhaps another indicator of the strength of the hegemonic ideals of art and societal norms.
In conclusion we can see several elements of the process of sacralization taking place, by comparing the surroundings accorded to each of the two displays. The "real" art was downstairs, in a small room with very little in the way of explanation; since its status was unambiguous it did not need more environmental assistance to declare its 'highbrow-ness.' The less clearly highbrow, more 'questionable' art received several environmental aids to increase its apparent 'worth' or 'purity:' it was upstairs, it was in the nicer and larger room, it was more spread out, there were educational plaques and handouts, there were watchful museum employees. To reiterate, this demonstrates how the environment is used to sacralize art - both that which is accepted as definitely Art, and that which is still in the process of sacralization. Currently our questions are twofold: does the audience recognize this art as sacralized, as Art? -and does the audience assist in this process of sacralization?
Let us once again look at the Gund Collection first. Mostly the audience consisted of older people in their apparent 40s to 60s, with what looked like a few college students mixed in. There were mostly individuals, with some couples and one small group of three. Behaviorally the same pattern was repeated over and over; eye contact with other members of the audience was strongly avoided, and careful distance was kept from those not of your group. Indeed, people would wait at a painting they'd already observed (sometimes with obvious displays of boredom, e.g., yawning and gazing around blankly) for someone to move on from the next painting, as if it were somehow improper to regard art out of order, or while someone else was. I was reminded of supplicants confessing in church; it seemed that custom dictated you must wait your turn to commune with the art.
Observation of the art was also rather ritualized. Someone approached to approximately 5 feet of the piece of art. Usually at this point one of two stances was taken. Either the hands were carefully clasped behind the back; or the left hand cupped the right elbow, and the right hand rested against the face. Then the person stood blank-faced and silently stared at the piece for a while; usually no more than about 10 to 30 seconds. The individual might approach more closely, even placing the face only inches away to carefully examine something about the piece, but there was never any attempt to touch it. The 'communion' between the observer and the object was considered quite strong -- people would not walk between the painting and someone regarding it. Indeed, at one point a curator apologized for passing between myself and a painting that was about 20 feet away; a painting that I wasn't even really looking at!
Couples could be seen 'communing' with the art also. Like the individuals, they usually looked a little 'drawn-in;' as in they kept their personal spaces quite close and looked a little uncomfortably formal in pose. They could frequently be heard murmuring quietly to each other while gesturing at the piece they were observing. Interestingly, one couple consisted of a man and a woman where the man was speaking loudly enough to be heard by others. It seemed a normal conversational tone to me and his commentary appeared to be a mostly approving consideration of the different stories the paintings seemed to portray. However, his wife seemed embarrassed at his speech, and while it was impossible to hear her clearly she seemed to be urging him to speak more softly and to come away from the paintings. I couldn't help but be reminded of an embarrassed mother trying to quiet her irreverent child at church.
I could not seem to get anyone to talk to me in this room. I suspect a combination of my own inhibitions against breaking taboo made an unfortunate combination with avoidance behavior in the other members of the audience. Everyone I started to approach tended to move away from me without looking directly at me... and it was my thought that good anthropologists probably rarely chase down their informants! I decided therefore to talk to people upstairs, trying to select for those that had seen both exhibitions.
The audience in the upstairs display did not differ much from the downstairs audience. With the exception of a slightly larger personal space per individual, I could not see any marked behavioral differences. One difference was the presence of a family, and many of the college aged people were taking notes, as was I. Many of the audience seemed to refer a great deal to their handouts. Sometimes they seemed to spend more time reading the handouts than observing the art. However, individual (or couples) observing a piece was still the norm; one did not 'share communion' with a stranger, nor did one deviate from the ritual stances of observation. Indeed, the male of one elderly couple amusedly moved his wife from in front of one piece - apparently she was taking too long studying the piece for his tastes! Speech was muted, as with the other exhibition. However, as I passed from one room to another, I was at one point able to overhear one elderly gentleman murmur quietly to his wife, "Doesn't do much for me."
I interviewed that particular couple later, and found them to have quite strong opinions on the exhibition. The woman was quite clear; her comment was that they "came for chuckles." She seemed to generally not care for it, nor consider it art; the man seemed slightly more aware of the difficulty of defining art and occasionally would correct his wife almost warningly... or perhaps he was simply more aware of political correctness while talking to an anthropology student. They were agreed, however, that the exhibition consisted of what they called "kitsch" or "trash can" art; they did not consider it "real" art. They were aware of the ambiguous artistic status of this display, although they did not use the terms highbrow and lowbrow; in their words, "Art doesn't have to be serious." Probably due to the handout, they recognized the culturally symbolic nature of Elvis and Marilyn, but felt the adulation was overdone. They did not deny the impact these two icons had on our culture, or their current almost mythic status, but hoped that most viewers would realize the exhibition was meant to be humorous. To them, Marilyn and Elvis were merely two of many entertainers of the time; during their discussion they amiably argued as to whether they were older or younger than Marilyn and Elvis, comparing Marilyn and Elvis to which other entertainers were "big" at the times they remembered clearly. Frank Sinatra was mentioned, as well as a few other names I did not recognize. The woman felt that Marilyn may have been talented, and recommended the movie Some Like It Hot to me; she felt Marilyn had been "cute" in it, and that the movie was "funny." She felt Elvis "was simply dreadful," that many people had felt he was quite talented, but she thought he was "a bit much. He was novel at the time." The couple agreed strongly, however, that the hype surrounding Marilyn and Elvis was excessive, using and transforming the people so that "they weren't real. What they conjured up wasn't real." Neither of the couple had yet been downstairs to see the Western art, but when they heard about it the woman seemed quite keen on doing so, nor did I get the impression that she thought it would be something she would view for "chuckles."
I next interviewed a man (apparently in his mid-30s) who'd seen both displays. He was quite firm in his assessment: the Gund Collection was art; the Elvis + Marilyn: 2 X Immortal exhibition was not. To him the Gund Collection was art because it required "a higher level of craftsmanship," he professed a great respect for craftsmen. He considered the upstairs exhibition "weird" and a little sad, that there were people that "would invest themselves so much in these images;" to him it was "almost unhealthy." He also did not care for the images that poked fun at people that took Marilyn and Elvis "too seriously;" to him that too was "sad, like attacking cripples." He realized that Marilyn and Elvis were cultural icons and recognized that some of the pieces were intended as "homage." However, he felt most of the images were investing Marilyn and Elvis with "more power, more authority, more meaning" than they truly had or deserved. To him, this was taking the images too seriously, or "going too far," that the artists used these images as "cultural hammers" to "tear things down." He felt that both displays were saying something about the time periods they were concerned with, but that they evoked very different emotions. The exhibition on Marilyn and Elvis, to him, said more about the people that created the displayed artwork; to him the pieces looked "commercial." He commented that sometimes the artists must have known they had no talent, and so in order to make the piece salable an iconic symbol was put into it, "and then someone'll buy it." Observing the Gund Collection, on the other hand, he said that he found himself "judging the work, not the artist."
After interviewing this man I approached one of the museum guards. He was a young black man who seemed rather shy of giving his opinion and who would not talk to me for very long. He was, in fact, the only black person I saw at the museum. I am not sure if his nervousness was due to talking to an anthropology student, worries at being thought to be slacking off on the job or 'talking down' one of the exhibitions, or whether he was not completely sure his opinions concerning art were legitimate. However, he also was quite emphatic in his opinions, even though he spoke very softly; the Gund Collection was not only "better" than the other display, it was his favorite exhibition in all his time working there. He found it "more interesting;" to him it was "real art." Indeed, he repeated the words "real" and "real art" several times in the context of the Gund Collection; he also used those phrases to say what the Marilyn and Elvis collection was not. When asked, he didn't initially like any of the upstairs exhibition, but after some thought he pointed out a simple collage that contained an American flag in it as a piece he liked. To him, it was nice that they could incorporate the flag like that.
We can see by the interviews a strong similarity in verbal response to both exhibitions. The general consensus was that the Gund Collection was art and the Marilyn and Elvis display was not; the audience does not yet recognize the newer art form as "Art." Yet in no case did I see a single person indicate displeasure in a public fashion. Everyone there kept their opinions to themselves; everyone's behavior treated both displays with almost reverent seriousness; everyone followed the contextual cues provided by the environment. I felt sometimes as if I was privately polling a silent and appreciative-looking audience to see if they realized the Emperor was wearing no clothes. They all knew it -- but no one wanted to be the first to stand up and say so. The people in the museum displayed perfectly Levine's descriptions of the role of the audience in regards to sacralized art; they were content (or at least willing) to be told what they should be learning and seeing, to be led to the entextualized Art and to accept silently the cultural authority represented by the museum's environs. Thus by their actions, or lack thereof, the audience contributed to the sacralization of art.
The overall impression I got from the people I talked to was almost a sense of alienation. Marx defines alienation (in regards to work) as loss of control over what you produce, what your work task is, and the creation of social, human relationships. I found the people observing the Marilyn and Elvis exhibition to be completely separate from the objects they observed - there was, for example, no one saying things like, "I could do that," or "I want to make something like that!" while looking at some of the simpler art objects, nor was there any apparent inclination to get closer to or participate with the art. Secondly, the almost lecturing tone taken by the exhibition plaques instilled in me (and also in others, from what I was later told) a feeling that I should "get this art stuff," and if I didn't there was obviously something wrong with me. There was no feeling that my individual opinion, delivered from the masses, was wanted or valued at all; indeed, the handout mentioned two corporate sponsors, three media sponsors, and only one individual sponsor (a doctor). Finally, the audience was completely individually isolated - there was no chat between people, no comparison of ideas or opinions, unless it was someone you arrived with. Assuming such a level of alienation, anomie is a logical outcome. Consequently I am not surprised that there were so few people in the museum, nor that no one there disputed the hegemonic ideals for audience behavior; I suspect those that were willing to protest such would do so by staying away from the museum.
Last Updated: Fri Apr 21 2000