Huffpost Arts
Brian D. Cohen Headshot

The Docent

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"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" -- Bob Dylan

"What you see is what you see" -- Frank Stella

My father bought a Prius, and he drives it (with the typical self-satisfaction of all Prius owners) by looking at the computer screen in the middle of the instrument panel. He's studying and maximizing his fuel economy in real time, but not looking at the road isn't a good idea.

A couple weeks ago I visited the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles with some friends. Upon entry, a docent accosted us. My culture companions welcomed her as Dante greeted Virgil in the dark forest. I pretended I didn't know any of them. In my experience docents are painfully well intentioned, more or less informed, and extraordinarily tenacious. Yet I confess, I avoid them and have always avoided them.

The museum-going experience is so public and open. It's like leaving all the lights on in a concert hall or movie theater, but with everyone else getting in your way. You try not to bump into people or let them block your view. Then the docent starts telling you what you're seeing. I find it really hard to see anything while someone is talking to me, especially when they are so stickily insistent. Here they are giving (volunteering even) their time and expertise for your personal enrichment, and then I ignore them. They imply I won't get anything out of the museum experience without their informed guidance. Turn away, it's my loss. Think of all I'm missing. I feel guilty about it.

In fact, you won't experience much at all if you do listen to them. They would have you substitute they little they know for all you could discover on your own. It is a trade not worth making. The secret of most art is that you don't need an intermediary. The secret is there is no secret.

To the extent that visual art is a visual experience having someone talking at you isn't helpful. It's like being read the program notes during the concert. It's actually kind of rude.

To philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski we owe the phrase "the map is not the territory." It's easy to mistake the map for the terrain, especially when the map is stuck in front of your face and you're told you'll be lost without it.

I think of the Protestant Reformation. You can't blame them for resenting the priests standing between them and their God.

Look up to find your way.