If, prior to January 8th, you find yourself downtown with nine dollars in your pocket and an hour to kill, stroll over to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and check out Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912. On display are fifteen paintings and twenty-five prints: forty experimental pieces that threw (and continue to throw) critics for a hermeneutical loop.
Critical opinion, though now settled into general veneration, was once divided. Some dismissed the paintings as cryptic slumgullions of edges and objects; some thought them artistic brilliance incarnate. The formidable E.H. Gombrich slyly extracted himself from the interpretational imbroglio by declaring Cubism “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture—that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.”
Perhaps because the pieces are elusive of categorization (Cubism is little more than an ad hoc category for these pigeonhole-less paintings); perhaps because they establish a visual language of their own; perhaps because—as Gombrich might have it—they cannot be recognized as anything but themselves; or perhaps because the old school “viewer” is quickly being replaced by the modern “interactor,” SBMA has attempted to make viewing art just as engaging, entertaining, and interesting as, say, interacting with one’s iPad. In fact, that’s exactly what they’ve done: as you enter the exhibit, an individual behind a counter to your right will offer you an iPad on which, they will tell you, you can compare and contrast the works of Picasso and Braque (two paintings appear next to each other on the screen, one by Braque, one by Picasso, over which little blurb-bubbles, some red, some blue, hover, both filled with text: red indicates difference; blue, similarity); you can also “scramble” and reconstruct a Cubist painting, read about the history of Cubism, and zoom in on a painting until the ridges of paint come into high-definition (I can’t believe it’s 2D!) relief.
Now, this would all be very nice and fun and fascinating if the paintings weren’t right there in front of you. One can see the differences for oneself; reconstructing a painting on a screen avails nothing; the good old fashioned placards next to the paintings and prints provide sufficient information; and one can actually approach the paintings and see them in Real Life 3D. For a more enriching and contemplative experience, leave the iPad at the door.
SBMA’s readiness to do what it takes to raise interest in the arts is commendable; Apple-izing art, however, is not the answer. Though the interest and novelty of the iPad may result in an uptick in museum attendance, this uptick does not indicate increased interest in art; it verifies an established interest in Apple. In the short run, this may be fine: the more people that attend museums, the better. But the iPad, rather than deepening understanding and appreciation, distracts. It is a lens that deadens where intended to enliven. And I fear our overexposed sight may suffer, is already suffering.