Dipping My Toes Into Artomancy

Day 295

I really like the idea of trying "Art-o-mancy," a technique for having a meaningful experience in a museum recommended for my blog list by Linda N. However, it doesn't look like trying the official, brand-name thing will be feasible for me. The technique is being spread by a company, which recently changed its name to "Museum Sage" to reflect the idea that it can be done in any museum, not just an art museum. They are based out of Minneapolis, so few official tours are offered near me in Boston or where I regularly travel, and the tours are a bit out of my budget in any case. So, I'm trying it on my own.

The idea behind Art-o-mancy or Museum Sage is simple. Like in bibliomancy, in which you ask a question and put your finger on a random passage in a book to find an answer, in this technique you choose a random museum piece to get an answer from. For many people the telling information in any divination practice is how you interpret what the material says, and not the material itself. For others, asking objects for advice is a spiritual or religious practice (bibliomancy sometimes refers specifically to the Bible, for instance), while other people ask for signs from the universe when they need guidance. I'm not sure how people in the latter group feel about people creating new "-omancies"and opinions probably vary. Sometimes when I'm stuck on a decision between two things, I'll flip a coin -- and then if I'm pleased with what the coin says, I'll go with it, but if I catch myself being disappointed, I know which way I'm leaning and go that way. Personally, the idea of asking a museum object a question about my life sounds like a way to ask myself that question. It's a potentially cool way to get unstuck.

Laurie Phillips, the co-founder of Museum Sage, gave a short presentation during the multi-part keynote session of the New England Museum Association conference this past November. I enjoyed her talk and it made me even more interested to try the technique. However, it didn't answer two questions that have been nagging at me since I learned about Museum Sage. What is their business model? They have some tours, and recently an app, but it's not clear how the pieces fit together. From their website, it seems that they might make their money by doing private tours as team-building exercises and corporate retreats. My other question is why exactly is this a business, rather than, say, an article or class sharing the technique? The company does offer trainings for a museum's staff "to offer Museum Sage at special events," and the app can be customized to a museum client, but neither of them seem to integrate the technique into the life of a museum. My hunch is that it is designed with very large museums in mind, where docents leading small groups in the technique would be impractical. Given Phillips's background in life coaching, I suspect that she's better at seeing the synergy between thought experiments and commercial ventures than I am.

Without further ado, here's a diary of my first foray into asking a piece of art a question.

I'm doing this on January 22, 2017, and trying to think of any question other than, "How can Americans from all political backgrounds band together and stop the rise of fascism?" (Some of you think I'm being hyperbolic by mentioning fascism, and that's a conversation we can have but not in this blog post; it is a deliberate and thought-out choice of words that is not intended to be hyperbole.) I need a moment's break from the political climate, so I'm pulling out a question that's been with me longer, one that can help me do better work in my community but serves other parts of my life as well.

"How do I tackle the problem 'so many books, so little time'' in my daily life?"

I'm breaking the rules here: in official Museum Sage (and probably some people's unofficial version), you place your finger at random on a museum map, and your guide (a tour guide or a friend) leads you there. I had intended to do this with some friends at an art show I attended last weekend, but I guess I chickened out. It was too crowded, there were too many people I knew there, and I wasn't comfortable talking about personal questions in that busy room. I am learning things about my personal preferences through doing this blog; I like my museum experience to include people (see my thoughts on the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center) but apparently not too many. So, I am creating a "museum sage" experience in my own home. I'm going to go to the blog of an artist friend of mine I have mostly lost touch with who was in the show I attended, and choose the first piece of hers that comes up. 

Interdimensional Disneyland Resort Postcard Set 4/4
by MitochondriArt (found on mitochondriart.tumblr.com)

Okay. I don't really know what I'm looking at. The people in the drawing are so distinct and vivid, and the artist does several genres, from illustrations for games to fanart to comics and independent work, so I don't know if this piece and the three others it's in a set with stand by themselves, or whether these figures are characters one could get to know in another medium. For the purposes of this exercise, though, it's just me, these four people, and the thing that might be a face in the decoration of the door frame behind them. 

So many books, so little time. It's a very busy drawing, reflecting my anxiety about how many different things I want to learn about or stay up to date on. For me, the idea of "so many books" isn't just about books, but about information -- podcasts, news articles, others' blog posts. Everyone in this drawing has very different hair from one another, fairly different clothing, and different attitudes on their faces and in their postures. The background is attention-grabbing, too, with bold colors and lots of detail. Is that the bottom of the chandelier hanging above the couch on the left, looking a bit like a rhinoceros beetle? Are there faces in the wallpaper, as well? Perhaps part of the lesson from this drawing is that there isn't one answer. Maybe it's okay to embrace the chaos.

So many books, so little time. How do I tackle this problem? One character in the drawing looks anxious, one eager, one is paying close attention to the thing they're watching, and one looks pleased and confident, like he knows what to expect. Lately I've been re-reading Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book, which advocates reading at different speeds and with different levels of inquiry for different books. These people are approaching the same experience with different attitudes. I wonder what's behind the two doors in the drawing-- or is one a window? Is the other the top of a very high-backed chair?

So many books, so little time. How do I know when I have an answer? Maybe doing this more "officially" (whether paying to do it or not) would help with that; my guide and anyone else doing it with me could help me figure out when my thoughts were settling on one thing. I think what I'm getting from this drawing, though, is that the answer to any time management question, especially one about something as big and complex as the world of information, is going to change often. I should just dive in and embrace the fact that I can read all I want and I'll still have the question of how to balance everything.

So, what did I get from doing this exercise? For one thing, it was a totally different approach to close looking than I normally take, and I appreciate that. Close looking often ends up feeling like "notice as much as I can," and this felt more like, "I'm looking for something, but I don't know what," which took my eye around the piece in a different way. I was looking for things to react to, which is an essential part of looking at art, just done from a different perspective than I'm used to. I'd definitely recommend the Museum Sage technique to friends, although I couldn't tell you whether doing the brand-name version would enhance the experience.