On the Aesthetic

Wedneday, January 14th

By Michelle, Harvard ’18

During a morning discussion about the philological vocabulary of giving, we stumbled upon the idea of the aesthetic. It’s a word we don’t hear too often in our daily lives, but one that describes the experience of connecting to a piece of art. Questions naturally arose about factors affecting this interaction. For example, how does the instinct to take photographs of artworks change how we internalize them? What role does a piece of art’s physical presence play in the aesthetic experience? While these questions are quite debatable, today’s visits to Dumbarton Oaks’s object storage and the Kreeger Museum made it clear that there is something to be said for being able to interact directly with art.

When we ventured downstairs to object storage, we were lucky enough to have Juan Antonio Murro and John Hansonshow us some of their favorite Pre-Columbian and Byzantine pieces. Juan Antoniodescribed how Robert Bliss had an incredible eye for distinguishing between artifacts and objets d’art within his Pre-Columbian collection. And it was true—while a human skull could have been classified as an artifact, yes, it was intricately decorated with blue tiles. An Inca tunic was definitely a piece of clothing, but also completely covered in square tocapu patterns. Likewise, John talked about dust from the Hagia Sophia that was once stored in cigarette tins and let us examine a beautiful mosaic within a worm-eaten wooden frame with magnifying glasses. Being able to view and even handle these objects up close allowed for a much more personal connection to the artworks than I believe I would have had from hearing stories about the pieces or viewing them online.

In the afternoon, we continued this adventure into the aesthetic experience with our second field trip, this time to the Kreeger Museum. After hearing a bit of background information about Mr. and Mrs. Kreeger (who met at a swimming pool), we were led through what used to be their home. While the dining room remains decorated with the same Monet paintings that adorned the walls during their lifetime, the living room now displays a combination of early and later Picasso paintings, which made me appreciate the flexibility the Kreeger Museum has in making small adjustments to its space. And as I painted in high school, it was really special to get up close and personal enough with the paintings to see every brushstroke. Coincidentally, I forgot my camera during this visit, so my attention was completely focused on the art.

Would I have had the same aesthetic experience if I were exploring Picasso’s and Monet’s works online, or if I were trying to photographically document my visit to the Kreeger? I can’t say. But engaging with Dumbarton Oaks’ Pre-Columbian and Byzantine objects and viewing the Kreegers’ collection definitely lent a lot of insight into the extent that the aesthetic experience is improved by interacting on a personal level with art. And in turn, this speaks for the importance of having cultural centers and homes for the humanities where people can go to have these experiences. I’m so happy to be enjoying behind-the-scenes tours of such places in DC this week, and looking forward to visiting the Dumbarton Oaks Archives and National Gallery of Art tomorrow!

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