Almost everyone I notice in a museum, and I visit a lot of museums each year, but almost everyone, myself included, is foolish enough to have their hand held electronic device open and ready to make images of everything that catches their eye. It is a ridiculous habit, one that I have not entirely broken, and as often as I am able to voice my authoritative opinion, I tell anyone who will listen to me that it is a very, very bad idea. Not only does it defy everything I know about visiting and viewing art, objects, or architecture, but it also entirely obscures the reason for the visits to the museums, at all. Why, I have asked myself, when I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for the very first time, did I insist on taking a lot of really awful, ridiculous, and now deleted images with my cell phone of every painting that reminded me of some moment of researching, writing, and editing during my undergraduate experience, while racing through one room after another, looking for the compositions that I would instantly recognize? It was madness. And, the real corker was that I had been thoroughly educated on not only “looking,” but on actually “seeing.”
It was my children, in fact, who first educated me on this subject, while pointing out to me, the difference between “looking,” and “seeing,” and that I often look, but that I don’t always see. It happened as I was packing up house and home for a move from the Midwest to New England, leaving a four bedroom farmhouse to make do in a two bedroom apartment, painfully sorting through years of collected belongings, and making heartbreaking decisions about what must go and, well, what must really go. I’d been dividing our most precious and most voluminous treasure – almost 3,000 books and films – into odd categories for dispersal that called for regular interventions from my two young-adult children. Disney animated films, it seems, were the most hotly contested of all the items to be given, donated, or tossed away.
Arguments ensued and while I refused to part with even one classic film from any given genre; I was loathe to pack for storage, anything that could be easily rented, borrowed, or even repurchased in a more technologically advanced format for future – dare I say – grandchildren. I had assumed that my twenty-first century, media savvy, young adult, daughter and son would agree with me. They did not. Why, I asked one day, is it necessary to keep copies of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Aristocats, Sleeping Beauty, or even The Rescuers? And why was I being chastised for having already taken Bambi and Snow White from our Disney film collection to give to one of our young pre-school friends?
Thus began a lecture in our home that I was required to attend for the next several hours, with my son operating the viewing equipment and my daughter providing oral rhetoric, the likes of which some of my future professors could not even compete, with thoroughly developed point and process. I was being informed, no – enlightened, and I was hostage to my children’s passionate persistence and dogmatic determination in ascertaining that their mother’s ignorance of the developments in animated film art during the last 75 years, be forever replaced with a more sophisticated perspective. Home educating one’s own children, it seems, does come with a price.
I sat patiently with a large cardboard box at my feet, ready to pounce on the first of the Disney animated films they wanted me to view, so that I could quickly pack it off to the local day care or Goodwill centre – but they were quicker in assessing my attitude and I was reprimanded for not paying attention. My daughter told me to, “look, really, really look, Mum,” at the imagery upon the screen; as the butler plotted and schemed the demise of the young kittens about to inherit their owner’s wealth in The Aristocats. So, I looked. I saw all things charming and cute – and was briefly conflicted during a moment of maternal angst between the remembrance of their childhood and the awareness of our need to move on and move out. “Is this about memories that are dear to you?” I asked.
My daughter quickly handed her brother another film and instructed him to fast forward, stop, or rewind on command. His willingness to follow her instructions so easily, belied their conspiracy against me and I began to suspect rightfully that theirs was a plan well laid. “Now look at this,” my daughter instructed. I watched the young lion, Simba, dance and sing across the screen with his sweetheart, Nala, before his father, Mufasa, is lost and killed in Lion King. “Okaaay,” I said, “so what is this about? Why do we have to keep copies of these films?” No sooner had I carelessly posed this question, than my son inserted The Aristocats again and then turned to me, narrowing his eyes. “Mum, you are looking,” he said, “but you are not seeing.” He was repeating one of my own most often expressed declarations as a teacher, right back at me, so I gulped and was intimidated enough to look more intently.
It was then that I saw what they saw. The animation was very different. Intricately drawn, precisely styled, and uniquely colored. It was, I understood for the first time, exquisitely crafted in all manner of technique and composition. It was viable work of art, and it was a masterpiece. As my eyes widened, my daughter began to instruct me on the history of animation arts and artists, the development of its form and function from the days of pen and ink sketches to the computer and digital years, the emergence of new American and foreign film companies that produced the animation that gave us Toy Story or more recently at that time, Bolt, and the importance of savoring the classical styles of the early animated film artists.
This, she did, while pointing out specific images in particular animated films, the differences in the 2D and 3D perspectives, the subtle shifts from realism to naturalism, and the evidence of hand crafted skills that are no longer used by animation artists. Her brother, once again, eagerly operated the technology for our viewing experience with deft maneuvers – lest his mother’s momentary transformation from an unappreciative animated film viewer be lost to the depths of the trash bin, instead of the packing bin. My children, I discovered, had grown to become shrewd critics of an art form that I had long ago dismissed. Moreover, they were informing me that what they might now consider a classic was no less valuable to them than the recent innovative works of animated film artists. They valued them equally – differently, perhaps – but equally.
These films, they had argued, must be saved and stored, not for nostalgic sentiment over their childhood years, but for their value as collected art in our library. They were right and I was wrong. I quickly admitted my foolish and prejudiced attitudes toward animated film art and design. I sincerely asked for their forgiveness and then demonstrated my conversion to essential new truths by helping them to gather all the Disney films back together and stacking them carefully for packing and moving. As we finished, my son looked at a pile of films I had reserved for another packing box – Singing in the Rain, South Pacific, Gigi and some of the other classic musicals that I could not bear to part with just yet. “These,” he suggested while smiling knowingly, while smiling slyly; “These could be donated to a nursing home, couldn’t they?” Yikes.
Later, when I became a Museums Educator at Smith College Museum of Art, I was formally trained in Visual Thinking Strategies, or VTS, which are museums techniques used for helping museums visitors spend less time “looking,” and more time “seeing.” The technique has been so successful that it is used today in business, medical, and educational environs with great success. Asking just three essential questions: “What do you notice about what you see,” and “What more can you find,” and “What do you notice that makes you say that,” helps folks in small groups or one-on-one settings to advance critical and analytical thinking skill sets. It’s a fabulous teaching tool and you can learn more about its original inception, (and everyone else is a knock-off, so don’t be fooled), here: https://vtshome.org
As for me, I’m still hoping that I will continue to “see” more than I “look,” and not just in museums, where learning to look and see, and to think and reason is so critical to maintaining a civilization that is more civilized, and a humanity that is more humane. But all around the world in which I live, especially as I read the headlines over that morning brew. I was a child of the 60’s, and my daughter and son were children of the 90’s. I still cannot fathom what it is, today, to absorb and process all that assaults our senses with such regularity and precision, that our human brain must alter itself to remain intact. It is an enormous amount of sight and sound that we translate into our thoughts and feelings, our goals and dreams, and more importantly, into our actions both independently and collectively over each hour, each day, each month, each year, and each decade. I want everyone to learn how to stop looking all the time, and to start seeing all the time, so that they too, can begin to create and sustain a world that is civilized and humane. I want everyone to plan more visits to museums.
On Seeing, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.