From In Situ Artwork to Education In Situ
From In Situ Artwork to Education In Situ

From In Situ Artwork to Education In Situ

The sequence began twenty years ago with my growing irritation with the classroom experience of projecting images of artworks on the wall . . .

September 17 th 2012

In an article published in Comment in February ("Art and Market: Mystique or Mystery"), my colleague Bruce Herman argues that the "scheme" of commercialized "mystique marketing" has rendered the art object more as "the subject of an elaborate game than a beautiful or meaningful thing-in-itself shared and enjoyed between members of a community over the long haul" [my italics]. This displacement of art from what Herman calls "genuine participation" by an "experiencing community" is the theme-between-the-lines of this present essay.

The embedding of the work of art in community was the norm for art-making during the long sweep of history until the Romantic notion took hold of the artist as counter-cultural subverter of conventions. Certainly in medieval and Renaissance Europe, pretty much all artworks existed in situ, commissioned by or for a particular group for its use in a particular location.

Most of us come across this phrase in situ on placards in museums or in captions in books, indicating the place where an old artwork was originally located before being taken away for preservation or aesthetic appreciation in museums. I'd like to expand the meaning of the phrase beyond simple identification of original location to indicate the artwork's intended "place in" a community, in the places where the "work of the people" (as the word liturgy means) was performed and enacted. Monastic communities commissioned Last Suppers for the walls of their dining halls for the devotional purpose of associating their own suppers typologically with the Lord's Supper.

The very simple purpose of this essay is to sketch the train of thought that led me, step by step, from a concern for viewing artworks in situ to an arts program that places the entire education process in situ.

The sequence began twenty years ago with my growing irritation with the classroom experience of projecting images of artworks on the wall; I was dissatisfied not only because the colour might be off but because sitting at desks looking at slides detaches the artwork from any relation to place or action, from any situated context. It encourages truncated attention focused primarily on formal aesthetic features, partly because there is little else to look at.

I decided to take students to see the real thing, unmediated by media. So began several years of month-long summer seminars to Florence. What a blast those travel tours were for the students and for me. But soon enough they, too, felt inadequate.

There turned out to be less difference than I had hoped between the experience of looking at a good-quality slide, focused to actual size, of Duccio's Rucellai Madonna, and viewing such paintings on the wall of the Uffizi Gallery, with its own modes of museumized detachment: slow stroll, hands behind back, staying far enough away to avoid setting off the alarm.

So I was drawn to take my students to those works that still remained in situ. And of course the value of Florence is that a boatload of such works can still be found in their original locations: We could experience the in situ situatedness of Ghirlandaio's famous Adoration of the Shepherds on the altar in the side chapel of the Sassetti family to the right of the main altar of Santa Trinità—witnessing with our literal eyes (not merely our mind's eye) how the frescoed scene of the healing of the young boy directly above the altar was set in the Via Tornabuoni immediately in front of this very church. They could see the kneeling figures of the patrons Francesco Sassetti and his wife frescoed in the walls on either side of the altarpiece, visually suggesting their own active participation with the shepherds in adoring the baby Jesus. My students could begin to imagine artworks in their liturgical setting, guiding the appropriate response of the extended Sassetti family as they gathered over generations to celebrate the Nativity, or the feast day of St. Francis after whom the paterfamilias was named, or to honour in memory the elder Sassettis, who in fact are buried in the sarcophagi in the niches on each side wall.

It was certainly an improvement to see Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Siena town hall, commissioned for the walls of the meeting hall of the Council of Nine, whose work—whose "liturgy"—would have been enacted under the conscience-pricking figures of virtues and vices depicting the elements of the Commonwealth and of Tyranny.

But, alas, still not absolute improvement, since no town council was any longer doing its work in situ; there were only huddles of tourists shuffling after their guides with little active sense that this Museo Civico was once the town hall.

So the next step in my train of thought was that we needed to see artworks when a "real" liturgy was going on. This is possible in Florence. We could look at Pontormo's Deposition during mass in Santa Felicità.

But not completely possible. Most masterworks are roped off, as is Pontormo's Deposition, behind iron grating, beyond the coin-eating light box. Famous pulpits sculpted by the Pisano family in Pisa, Pistoia, and Siena exist only as art objects, no longer used for preaching. The past two decades mark the period of eliminating actual liturgical function and turning churches into ticket-charging museums, understandable in a secularized Europe where the clear majority of people entering churches are tourists, not worshippers, and both towns and dioceses are strapped for cash to maintain the cultural heritage.

I began thinking that maybe seeing a frescoed "life of Mary" of secondary fame and quality (like that in the apse of the Orvieto Duomo) but still unprotected in an active church was a more fruitful and satisfying educative experience than one's allotted fifteen minutes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova.

And that led to the next stage of this train of thought playing out with my students. Instead of just taking students to see an in situ artwork when the local folk are using it in liturgy, why not be in the liturgy, participating, not just observing, along with those folk—using the altarpiece, experiencing the intended purpose of the painting personally ourselves?

An improvement, but still not complete. Alas, I discovered that attending mass one time doesn't actually a liturgy make, since liturgy is the work of a community through time, not just in space, and the artworks created to enhance that liturgy were "shared and enjoyed between members of a community over the long haul," to use Herman's phrase. One needs to become a member of the community, not just a drop-in spectator, to enter into the in situ presence of the worshippers, the one worshipped, and the artworks (whatever their fame) that assist that worship, focusing attention and amplifying theme and lesson. My conclusion was that my students and I needed to live long enough and substantially enough to become bona fide members of a community.

And so occurred the evolution of those summer seminars into a semester program of four months, where over the years the townsfolk of Orvieto could see the daily engagement of those American stranieri, and where everything about the program gently urged students to experience repetition, to exercise commitment, to sing in the parish choir of San Giovenale, not just to sit in the back pew to observe the mass and enjoy the vibes of a thousand-year-old church with its palimpsest of frescos.

And hence the next stage: At some point, you're going to want, or the choir director is going to invite you, to introduce a new song to the San Giovenale repertory. As the museum-going tourist becomes a member of an in situ community, its identity and mission gives grip not only to old art doing its work in worship, but to new art that might take its place in an unfolding tradition.

This has been our subtle progress from "educational art history mode" to "contributive mode," from studying in situ art to making art in situ, for a community in situ.

Gradually, our students and teachers are leaving their marks around town. A series of ceramic-relief plaques of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross made by Marino Moretti and his students are installed in the contemplative garden of monastery San Lodovico, where they are used during the Via Crucis liturgy on Good Friday to guide the gathered congregation's devotions.

When Tanja Butler recently taught an Art and Liturgy course, she took up the motif of the liturgy of the hours. They studied the Daily Office historically and theologically and devotionally, but Tanja also formed her students into a small bottega to create a contemporary liturgy of the hours, all the while punctuating the month's experience by participating in the Vespers service chanted every evening by the local community of cloistered Franciscan nuns.

Matthew Doll, the present director of the Orvieto program, describes the culminating event of the fall 2011 semester, when theatre artist Jeff Miller and ceramics artist Marino Moretti collaborated on a concluding performance and exhibition of the Nativity.

The result was a perfect synthesis of our program's desire to radiate out from the center, in grateful and charitable service, with the creative fruit of our students' lives evident in their work. Everyone participated in the process. Everyone made masks with Marino for our major set piece in the garden-courtyard of Palazzo Simoncelli (the program headquarters), and each person had a role in a theatrical performance created as an itinerant procession of the shepherds through town, looking for the Christ child. With a growing crowd of local people following along, the players eventually entered the courtyard of the Palazzo. Candles dotted the perimeter walls, surrounding the central drama of 60-plus masks, placed on metal rods, at the back of the enclosure. At the center was a small fire instead of a traditional figure of the baby Jesus. The mask figures were placed beneath a metal canopy "punched" with designs by the students, itself open to the sky above and reflecting the firelight below. It was simple and focused, and invited participation. People were moved by the quiet but deep presence of a shared expression of the mystery of the Nativity.

After the performance, the audience-now-participants were invited into the studio for an exhibition of original drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures and masks: all for sale. The proceeds of 1,000 euros were given to needy families in Orvieto and in Bethlehem.

In fact, the event reflected the very purpose of St. Francis in his original living crèche in Greccio, while introducing some creative innovation to the traditionalism of exhibiting manger scenes at Christmastide, so beloved by the people of Umbria.

Such examples suggest what our program in Orvieto has come to see as education in situ: from learning how art was once made in situ of a community, to placing our learning about art in situ, to a mode of living and making itself "situated" in community. A sort of new monasticism meets Renaissance bottega.

Topics: Arts
John Skillen
John Skillen

John Skillen was the medieval and Renaissance specialist in the English department of Gordon College (Ph.D., Duke University) before serving as the inaugural director of the Orvieto program since its inception in 1998. He has served as chairman for both the English and Communication and Theatre Arts Departments, and is a veteran leader of summer seminars in Italy and the British Isles and a number of study-tours and retreats in Italy. Professor Skillen's interests are broadly in the arts and cultural history, and—as the program vision indicates—he is interested in the renewed relevance of moments in early European culture for the conditions of our present "post-culture." He is the director of the Studio for Art, Faith & History, edits the Studio's e-journal, Letters from Europe, and is the founder and co-director with his Orvieto colleague Alessandro Lardani of the annual Festival of Art & Faith held in June each year.


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