You should experience the Tino Sehgal exhibition? situation? event? happening now at the Guggenheim. You could go because some of your fellow students and faculty are involved. Or, far more importantly, you could go because it’s all about what is at the heart of your college education.
Abandon all cell phones (and other commodities) you who enter here. You may already know about the Sehgal exhibition from a review published in the Spectator last week. If not, here’s a bit of background. At Sehgals’s behest, all the art-objects in the Guggenheim have been removed. Instead of passively contemplating objects, visitors are engaged in conversations about big ideas by successively older guides. (That’s where your fellow students and faculty come in). No things, all talk.
You sense where my argument is going. In college, you are asked to think, write, and talk for eight semesters, by a succession of teachers ranging from energetic young teaching assistants to sage professors. It’s all about the personal articulation of ideas. Some of your professors won’t even allow you to bring your laptops into class. The more stuff there is in your life, the more electronic gadgets promise you a constant stream of information, the more adamantly Columbia and Barnard demand that you analyze data, evaluate knowledge, and craft logic. Sehgal’s guides ask you: “What is Progress?” Columbia and Barnard have already taught you to consider that kind of question carefully.
So why bother going to the Guggenheim? Because Sehgal distills the college experience and makes you aware of its material conditions. He doesn’t imagine art can happen anywhere, any more than people are likely to teach themselves as well as a college or university can. He still believes in the museum. He doesn’t dismiss the power of money. He makes sure he gets paid well for his work. He does not propose that thought is free, or spontaneous. His whole Guggenheim project is carefully staged.
And yet. “I’ve found that people are routinely surprised by some of the opinions I hold (opinions that I don’t consider particularly unique for people my age)” a Barnard student participating in the Sehgal event, Kaitlin Phillips CC ’13, wrote me. Well, I can identify with the visitor side of that. Every semester, you surprise me again. At the Guggenheim, you might surprise yourself with the mental concentration and the conviction Sehgal summons.
So that’s a paradox. Sehgal uses material constraints to hollow out a space for the immaterial. Within his elaborate institutional power-project floats the pure intellectual encounter of one human being asking another to talk about an idea.
It’s one thing to be in a class with a dozen or so fellow students, who might fill those awkward silences. It’s another when it’s just you, face to face with someone who asks you one challenging question and doesn’t budge from that topic. Actually, it’s you face to face with four people in a row. In class, maybe you’ve actually done the assigned reading and can always fall back on analyzing what the reading has to say about the day’s subject. At the Guggenheim, you’re asked for your opinion, not what someone’s else’s book or article argues.
If you respond, you become a part of what is going on at the Guggenheim. It’s already just a tiny bit awesome that some of your classmates and faculty have become parts of Sehgal’s work. You can be too. For the rest of your life, you will remember how going to college in New York City meant, among so many other things, becoming a work of art.
The author is a professor of art history at Barnard College. Each Friday, a professor will share scholastic wisdom readers won’t find in lectures. Suggestions regarding which professors to feature are welcome. firstname.lastname@example.org