Students learn how to behave inside a museum at the National Gallery of Indonesia in Jakarta. (JG Photo/Diella Yasmine)

How to Appreciate Art 101

AUGUST 23, 2018

Jakarta. When you check out what's on in Jakarta every weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a city for art lovers – there are so many exhibitions, gallery openings or art-music-film  festivals going on at the same time.

Indeed, art seems to have become the number one cultural capital for Jakarta's hipsters at the moment.

The recent Art Jakarta trade fair featured 3,000 artists and was chock-a-block with art lovers looking for a bargain.

When the city's new contemporary art museum – Museum MACAN – was opened in November last year, the queues were so long some of the shows had to impose time restrictions on visitors.

But, there have been murmurs of complaints about the recent art craze.

Some are arguing that people's enthusiasm for art is not commensurate with their knowledge of it, and consequently with the dos and don'ts of enjoying it.

Yes, we are talking about art's selfie debate, among others.

To make sure gallery visitors keep their hands (and selfie sticks) off fragile art works, the National Gallery Indonesia and the Ministry of Education and Culture have devised an art education program to teach young students how to properly enjoy and appreciate art.

Starting in 2015, the gallery organizes workshops, discussions and art education classes for participants selected from the gallery’s visitors list in the past three years.

"We get visitors from everywhere, and from all sorts of background. But most of them are young people and students," National Gallery Director Pustanto said during one such workshop last week.

Pustanto said teaching people how to appreciate art should start early in life.

"Art can be the perfect tool to communicate what cannot be put into words. It helps if people know how to interpret and appreciate what's being communicated," Pustanto said.

"Not everyone can be a great artist, but everyone can learn to love, understand and appreciate art," he said.

Selfies to Infinity

When you visit Yayoi Kusama’s "Life is the Heart of a Rainbow" exhibition at Museum MACAN in West Jakarta, you'll find a long line of people waiting to take photos and selfies inside its highly popular "Infinity Room" and "Obliteration Room."

The proliferation of gallery visitors taking their sweet time to take sometime highly choreographed photos in front of an art work has given rise to a new term to describe them: Instagram slaves.

These over-enthusiastic lovers of the arts have also been blamed for damages done to art works when they failed to keep their hands to themselves.

"It's been a source of debate among many cultural institutions that audiences might only just come to galleries to take photos to upload on social media, to show their friends that they aren’t missing out, to show off that they are cultured," Jakarta-based artist and curator Leonhard Bartolomeus said.

Instagram slaves are not restricted to Indonesia either. A visitor also damaged a pumpkin in another Yayoi Kusama installation, "All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins," at Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden while attempting to take a selfie.

According to Leonhard, the rise of Instagram has also affected artists. Some of them, Leonhard said, are starting to create works in the hope that they would go "viral."

Some museums are also guilty of encouraging visitors to take selfies so they can attract more of them, Leonhard said.

How to Appreciate Art 101

To counter this tendency, Pustanto said the National Gallery has taken the initiative to organize a simulation workshop for young students and their teachers from across Jakarta to teach them how to behave themselves in a gallery.

During the one-day workshop, the students are invited to walk around the National Gallery without any supervision from their teachers or gallery securities. Their behaviors are secretly recorded and the videos shown at the end of the workshop to be analyzed.

"We want them to learn for themselves the dos and don’ts of museum visits," Pustanto said.

The secretly taped videos showed the students poking some of the art works with their fingers, running their hands over them, leaning against them and some lying down on the floor to be photographed near them. Some of them also use flash while taking pictures inside the gallery.

Leonhard said the National Gallery actually has a "two tiles away" rule to prevent visitors from damaging art works. They are also told the gallery's dos and don’ts at the entrance by a guide. But many of them choose to ignore the rules.

Leonhard interviewed the students who violated the museum rules during the workshop and their answers were revealing.

Some said they wanted to touch the works to make sure they were "real." Others figured the lack of glass protector at the gallery meant they were allowed to touch the art works. And some said they thought they were allowed to go near the art works because there were no marks on the floor to stop them.

One of the students even said he wanted to touch the art works to show his appreciation to the artists.

Leonhard said museum securities should be more proactive in protecting works of art.

"Often I see them just standing at the entrance. They should take shifts walking around the museum to watch the visitors, especially during a blockbuster exhibition," Leonhard said.

He also suggested that museums and galleries should always provide programs and guides to keep visitors engaged.

"Many visitors feel disengaged with the works on display because they don't really know what they're looking at," Leonhard said.

"Visitors want more than just a description box. They want to know the story behind the works. When they feel engaged and involved, they'll learn to respect the artists. And stop touching their works," Leonhard said.