Photograph by Mark D. Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Finding the Story in Art

My next few posts are going to be about looking at art works and finding the stories they tell. Some of the stories are easy to find and some take a little digging, but every art work has a story – almost always more than one. Reading their stories can make a trip to the museum a lot more interesting than just wandering around looking at the pretty colors.

Over the last two semesters at Ball State University I’ve been taking some time out once a week from my regular work day to train to become a museum docent at the David Owsley Museum of Art (DOMA). Docent is a word with Latin roots related to ‘teach’ and ‘teaching’ and is a fun way to describe someone that guides tours through a museum providing education and encouraging discussion and investigation into the art works on display.

Maybe you’ve been on some of these tours. If not, you should try it. You can get some cool ‘behind the scenes’ kind of information about the art works, learn news ways to look at art, and have some fun doing it. The placards on the wall are great, but only a little information can fit in such a small space. If you want more of the story, take a tour.

Usually the docents are volunteers and the tours are free. A typical tour lasts from thirty to forty-five minutes. You can check any museum’s web site for times and topics. Or you could show up spur of the moment like and ask at the information desk when you arrive. I did that on a recent visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art. There were several tours available at different times. I had just enough time for a cupcake in the snack bar before the one I wanted started. If you have a group, you can call ahead and make arrangements for special times and topics. Even though the buildings are often imposing and frown-y looking, I’ve been to a lot of museums and I’ve always found the staff to be friendly and welcoming.

Part of my personal docent training included leading my first tour. During one of our classes I lead a ‘practice tour’ for the training staff and my fellow docents to get some feedback. Then on the next Saturday afternoon I lead the tour for real museum visitors. My tour topic was of course finding the story in art. So these posts will be me leading you on a virtual version of my tour.

Welcome to my tour – lets get started.

First up, a story from an episode of the Simpsons TV show. One time Bart and his buddy Milhouse find some money on the street and they use it to go to the Kwik-E-Mart to buy a ‘squishee’, their favorite icy sugar laden drink. Since they have so much money they decide to get a ‘super squishee’ made entirely out of syrup and served in a huge cup. They get so energized on all that sugar that they run around town doing all sorts of crazy stuff – a montage ensues. When Bart wakes up the next morning, he is stunned to find that during his madcap adventure he accidentally joined the Junior Campers, a cub scout like organization that Bart thinks is really really lame.

At the breakfast table Bart tells his family that he’s going to have to be a man about it, face the situation head on, and find a way to weasel out of it. His mother Marge, always the optimist, tries to convince him how great the Junior Campers will be and that he should give it a try. Of course Homer interrupts her and tells her not to discourage the boy because “…weaseling out of things is and important skill to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals – except the weasels.”

While weaseling out of things might not really separate us from the animals, telling stories does. Humans are natural born story tellers. We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years. From oral traditions told beside the camp fire and passed down through generations to streaming services and binge watching – telling stories is what humans do.

When we come back to school or work after a long weekend what do we all do? We hang out in the halls and break rooms swapping stories about what we did while we were away. Maybe we went camping, maybe we went to a concert, maybe we just hung out on the sofa. It doesn’t matter what we did, it’s all stories. We like to hear stories and we like to tell stories.

On the Jeopardy TV show after the first commercial break they always talk to the contestants. Alex Trebek has notes to steer the conversation toward stories. He’ll say something like, “I see here that you are an Elvis impersonator. Tell me about that.” And the contestant will respond, “Why, yes Alex, ever since I was a child I like to dress up like Elvis…yadda, yadda, yadda.” These contestants aren’t just trivia machines, they’re humans like you and me and how do we know that? Because they have stories to tell.

The coevolution of humans and stories may not be one of the oldest partnerships in the history of life on Earth, but it is certainly one of the most robust. As a psychic creature simultaneously parasitizing and nourishing the human mind, narrative was so thoroughly successful that it is now all but inextricable from language and thought. Stories live through us, and we live through stories.

Ferris Jabr The Story of Storytelling Harper’s Magazine March 2019

Anything that a human has seen or done or touched has a story. That goes double for art. A work of art is something that has been imagined, created, passed down through generations, bought, sold, viewed, and studied by humans. It starts with the story that the artist wants to tell and gathers more and more stories as the years go by. A museum full of art is just crawling with stories waiting for us to come and read them.

OK. Our first work of art is “The Gathering of Manna (Il miracolo della manna)” painted in 1635 by Ottavio Vannini. It’s a huge painting hanging on the south wall of the gallery on your left at the top of the stairs. Let’s head up there

Comments on "Finding the Story in Art"

  1. Hi Mark,

    Congratulations on your museum docent hobby! If you talk as well as you write, they’re lucky to have you.

    You cover a lot of ground in your post. Tours in a museum with a knowledgeable guide can be so educational — I’ve experienced that. And you visited the Cleveland Museum of Art! Once upon a time Cleveland was a North American hotbed of watercolour painting. I found a lot of great watercolour works while looking in their online collections.

    And thanks for the Harper’s Magazine link. I’m pretty interested in the nature of story too!

    (Harper’s used to be one of my favorite magazines in my much younger years, especially under Lewis Lapham. And I saw one the other day in a newstand when I hadn’t for a long time — but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough.)

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