Dr Jim Harris, Ashmolean Museum - What's the point of looking at things?

Knowledge, meaning, and observation are bound up together, as the Ashmolean Museum’s Jim Harris showed.

‘The business of looking at things not something we normally do with any rigour,’ said Jim Harris, Andrew W Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator in the Ashmolean Museum’s University Engagement Programme, and the speaker at the latest Saïd Business School Engaging with the Humanities event.

As a Teaching Curator, he said his job is ‘persuading people to look’: making them stop in front of an individual object, really look at it, examine it, and ask what they can know from it. For example, when looking at objects from the past we are looking at why people did things, how they did them, and how our experience of an object now differs from its original purpose.

‘What they can know is not what’s on the label or guidebook,’ he said, ‘but it depends on the question you ask. And the question you ask will depend on your discipline… we look to understand the question.’

It was relatively easy to see how historical prints of surgeons and dentists at work could prompt their contemporary equivalents to reflect on their own practice. And though no one in the room could read ancient Sumerian, it was difficult to look at the piece of carved stone known as the Sumerian King List without marvelling at the fact that it was made by an actual person who lived, and had a life, in the Bronze Age. But one of the most interesting parts of Harris’s talk focused on some minimalist sculptures – which, almost by definition, would seem to offer less to look at.

Showing us a picture of a copper, enamel, and aluminium box by the sculptor Donald Judd, Harris explained that Judd had nothing to do with the actual manufacture of the objects he produced. He sought to make ‘things that tell no story, a specific object with no resonance beyond itself.’ Indeed, although there was something satisfying and beautiful about the dimensions and materials of the sculpture, it did seem deliberately characterless – until Harris zoomed in on a tiny smudged fingerprint in one corner. ‘Judd hated fingerprints,’ he said. ‘With the fingerprint the object became not just itself, but itself plus someone.’

The fingerprint was evidence that someone, at some point, had touched Judd’s object. This prompted further questions about our usual relationship with sculpture. It ‘longs to be caressed’, said Harris, but typically we are not ‘supposed’ to touch it.

This led into an entertaining pantomime of what happens when people encounter Carl André’s sculpture, Venus Forge. This is a long, flat sculpture made from thin metal plates placed along the floor. André intended it to be walked on, but this is not usually signposted in a gallery. So, as Harris demonstrated, typically people stand at the end and look at it for a while. They look around at the curator and other people in the gallery before carefully stepping on to the sculpture. They stand still, then look around again before moving on. Just as they are beginning to walk with more confidence, they discover that the object is not flat: one of the plates moves as they step on it. In alarm, they look around again. ‘Looking at this sculpture involves looking around you, looking at others, and looking at the environment,’ said Harris.

In contrast, looking more closely at Richard Serra’s Trip Hammer we notice that it should certainly not be touched because there is nothing holding it up. Looking at it is an insight into precision. But it raises interesting questions about what constitutes simplicity, or what constitutes safety in a public place.

Sometimes, looking at something can tell us more about the original viewer than about the thing itself. Harris showed two pictures of Nur Jahan, the seventeenth-century Empress of Mughal India. Intelligent and active in government, she was an object of fascination to westerners, who did not often see women of power.

A Dutch print shows her lounging in a garden – which is what a westerner at that time would ‘expect of women and Indians’. Another, Indian, picture shows her in action and clearly holding the reins of power. Looking carefully at these pictures tells us something about the colonial viewpoint and about how Indians at that time thought about Nur Jahan – though not necessarily anything about the Empress herself.

A portrait by Titian of the Genoese diplomat Giacomo Doria asks different questions about what we can ‘know’ by looking at something. As Harris said, this picture is remarkable for how little there is in it. There is a big column, a man dressed in black with a beard … and nothing else, apart from the extraordinary sense of the man we get from his eyes and face.  

He compared this picture with a Leandro Bassono portrait of another diplomat. There is more context, more to ‘know’ in the painting -- but less to feel in the face of the sitter. It is, said Harris, the difference between a painting made by someone pretty good, and one made by someone great.’

Looking at things is ‘useful’, he concluded. We can look at things and derive knowledge from them; we can also find meaning. Asked how much knowledge you need to add to observation to get meaning, he answered that while someone may not know much about art but ‘know what they like’, he thought ‘It’s good to know something along with knowing what you like.’

What's the point of looking at things?