The difference between seeing and thinking

October 25 2012

Image of The difference between seeing and thinking

Picture: J. Paul Getty Trust

See if you can spot the difference between these two 'mission statements' from the Getty Center. Here's the new one:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is a cultural and philanthropic institution dedicated to critical thinking in the presentation, preservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy. Through the collective and individual work of its constituent Programs—the Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Getty Research Institute—it pursues its mission in Los Angeles and throughout the world, serving both the general interested public and a wide range of professional communities with the conviction that a greater and more profound sensitivity to and knowledge of the visual arts and their many histories is crucial to the promotion of a vital and civil society.

Here's the old one:

One of the largest supporters of arts in the world, the J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution that focuses on the visual arts in all their dimensions. The Getty serves both the general public and a wide range of professional communities in Los Angeles and throughout the world. Through the work of the four Getty programs—the Museum, Research Institute, Conservation Institute, and Foundation—the Getty aims to further knowledge and nurture critical seeing through the growth and presentation of its collections and by advancing the understanding and preservation of the world’s artistic heritage. The Getty pursues this mission with the conviction that cultural awareness, creativity, and aesthetic enjoyment are essential to a vital and civil society.

In case you didn't spot the difference, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust spells it out in his blog:

You will see that up front we emphasize critical thinking. Previously we had stressed critical seeing. But the more we thought about it, seeing seemed too passive: it’s what we do when simply opening our eyes. Of course, it may become looking, as in looking for something or someone. But that is just a more focused way of seeing. It uses the mind only to the extent that we recognize someone or something we were looking for.

Critical thinking is something altogether different. It uses the mind to examine and make sense of something. And thus it underpins everything we do at the Getty, whether in the acquisition and analysis of works of art, the investigation of our discipline’s literary sources, the selection of scholars, the examination of artistic materials and the environmental conditions affecting art and architecture, the training of conservators, the analysis of project partners, the consideration of new grant programs and grantees, or the analysis of administrative, legal, financial, communication, and investment options. Everything we do and every decision we make in pursuit of our mission involves and requires critical thinking.

Update - a reader writes, delightfully:

There's something of the inspirational new headmaster to it.

Up to 1960: We're extremely keen here.

1960 to now: Everyone looks, but how many of us really see?

Now: We can all see but who can think?

I reckon Sherlock Holmes would rate seeing pretty high. Comparing unknowns with knowns is the basic tool of human understanding. Thinking is the digestion that comes next. 

Soon it will be 'But the art historian has to feel.'

All are true, but they have to be in the right order. 

Curiously I have heard of a people who don't use simile. Nothing can be compared to anything except itself. Every thing that happens is like nothing but the last time it happened. But they must be the exception.

The old one tells me more about what they do, and aesthetic enjoyment gets squeezed out. A vital and civil society is a beautiful phrase though.

It's probably a case for using the old test of whether the opposite of a statement makes any sense: in this case, if an institution said it was 'dedicated to uncritical thinking', we would all laugh.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.