Getting to the “Point”

Pointing in the Big Idea Color Gallery

Since I’ve been photographing visitors at CMA, I have noticed a great deal of pointing going on.  Our visitors point at paintings and sculptures.  They point from across the room; they point up close. And I notice that some people don’t look too favorably at this activity – which is unfortunate.

Pointing is a good thing in an art museum.  It is visible evidence of other, often indiscernible, activities such as looking and thinking, sharing and communicating.

Pointing in CMA's Matthew Brandt photography exhibition.

Pointing in CMA’s Matthew Brandt photography exhibition.

Since the early 1970s, psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists around the world have been studying the pointing gesture of humans and other primates. Their research is detailed and complex.  But here is what I take away from it.

Pointing is not such a simple gesture.  In fact, it is a complex and nuanced form of human communication.  Other primates may point, but they don’t have the capacity to point with the same motivation and intention that humans do. Pointing is one feature of our advanced language and communication.

Starting as early as one year of age, pointing is the way one human being tells another, “Hey, see that object over there? That is the thing I am talking about. That is something I have a thought, idea, or opinion about.  And I want to share my thought, idea, or opinion with you.  So please look at it with me.”

In her paper Pragmatics of Imperative and Declarative Pointing, Ingar Brinck notes that pointing is important because “it provides a starting-point for cooperation centered on the shared object.” This is an important finding for art museums.  Why?  Because we are in theobject conversation business.  We collect and care for art objects so that human beings, not chimps or dogs or aliens, can look, think, and talk about them.  At CMA, we endorse this purpose with a memorable tagline:  Art Speaks, Join the Conversation.

A family works on a puzzle in the Big Idea Gallery: COLOR.

A family works on a puzzle in the Big Idea Gallery: COLOR.

And so I take heart when I walk through our galleries and witness pointing in action; I take notes, I snap photos.  I know that conversation is underway or just about to begin.

Pointing is a good thing.