Please Don’t Feed the Art
Some Thoughts on The Museum as a Place/Thing/Idea.
I’ll be the first to admit — as I’m the only one that can — that upon entering a museum I quickly think (after coat/bag check and several awkward nods at a security guard), “OK, what next?” This is followed quickly by, “I wish I still had my bag” or “I should have smoked before coming in here,” but these additional thoughts are inconsequential. My third or fourth thought (more consequential, I suppose) is either: a) Nuts, I have to pay for a ticket or b) Is this a valid, nonchalant way to ignore the donation box?
After I’ve then made it past the help desk or the ticket counter or the bored ticket takers who are quite clearly flirting with each other, there comes flooding a river of unasked questions into the dry bed of my brain that frankly I’m not sure how to ask (let alone write down in an article). Because honestly, once I’m inside, there’s a lot of inertial energy that (ironically) takes over, and that’s about it until the wandering begins. Maybe there’s a special exhibition I’d like to see, or perhaps I want to look at the latest photography exhibit, or maybe I just want to bump into a pretty girl who is also looking at art at the moment, and then we can notice (at the same time!) that both of us are looking at the same art (!), with the same inscrutable intensity that masks an utter bewilderment with a deep, fathom-defying knowing. We catch eyes, hold for a second, and then her boyfriend walks up, says, “Pretty cool, right?”, they kiss, and the rest of the exhibition is spent wondering if I can catch that eye just one more time…
Enter through the front doors of the non-Modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago and you are met with a grand staircase that either takes you up into the vast, blurry world of Impressionism (and other less myopically disadvantaged 19th century art) or down into the restroom hallway where the illustration exhibits hang ensconced in the odor of distant cafeteria food and nearby urinal cakes. If I avoid the staircase altogether (in this Narnian land of Escher, there is a whole world behind the staircase), I can go straight into both the Near and Far Easts, the suits of armor, the quiet spaces of the museum) or, even further, the special exhibits. Lots of choices.
But why am I here? Why this museum? And for that matter, why is everyone else here? These tickets were expensive! Does anybody really want to look at art, let alone a specific artwork? Why the hell is there a museum all around me anyway? Who built this thing and what was the point? Was this the ideal solution to their intentions or was there possibly a better one? Why is it even open? Why don’t people wash their children?
And I pause between a tiny Buddha and a towering suit of armor (the former has no one’s attention, the latter is surrounded by three adolescent boys either making swooshing sounds or mocking said swooshing sounds). A suspicion grows that our visits to museums are obligations fulfilled, which isn’t exactly a great way to promote art appreciation or whatever the fuck they call it in school these days.
Art 101. The professor’s assignment was 1) go to a museum, 2) write about a specific piece of art. Horrible assignment. No direction other than formulate a thesis and then write an essay defending/explaining said thesis. In addition to making the 1-hour drive to a distant museum, we then had to roam the corridors like horny singles looking for something (anything) to woo. And the game was tailor-made for our hunt, which took some of the excitement out of it. Hundreds of paintings strutted their stuff, showing a little leg here, some cleavage there, calling to us in sultry, non-committal tones, telling us to have some fun with them. And it worked. Everyone in the class eventually found their art, but I doubt very many came away from the experience with more than a shadowy stimulation and an uneasy swagger.
And that bothered me. When we go to a museum with a specific intention, the artwork on display suddenly gains primary significance as a means to an end. But, I say angrily to my doubts, if we don’t have a goal, we are simply left with that series of questions I usually experience when I first enter a museum of my own free will (see top of page or the next two sentences). Why am I here? What should I look at first?
Okay. Another tack, then. Since I don’t have the answers yet (if there are any) and because additionally I don’t want to consider goals in such a bald fashion, let’s look at the different ways we can identify the museum itself, since maybe, just maybe, it’s the museum that is the problem, not us. We can do this with metaphors. Maybe after some careful consideration or casual strain the questions I typically have will drop away and new ones will take their place.
That’s really all I want. A chance. And so…
TEN POSSIBLE METAPHORS FOR THE MUSEUM, FOR USE IN SCRUBBING THE BRAIN
1. THE MAUSOLEUM. Where dead people go. Where family members can take pride in their past and their future decomposition. Where a certain amount of respect is given to the dust that still has a legible name carved in stone or brass. Where an epitaph can provide instant guidance for expected response. A curious, if untrustworthy, instigator of the sublime.
2. THE REPOSITORY. Where scholars scurry to find the unsung, unobserved, unimportant object. Where specialists hunch over details and specks. Where the lovers of the past find their ideal beloved. Where artists find their master’s muse.
3. THE SCHOOLROOM. Where children go to hear what they are supposed to hear and forget what they are supposed to remember. Where energy builds up without chance for release. Where teachers whose passion is struggling to stay alive hope to revive the passion through sharing.
4. THE ZOO. Does anybody really want to go to the zoo? Aren’t most of us kinda grossed out by zoos? Especially after the age of 25, when we’ve finally attained some level of freedom but then realized it was just the other side of the cage?
5. THE FAMILY REUNION. Where relatives convene to share stories, memories, and potluck lunches. Where the threat of rain promises the quick extinction of a half-good time. Where the heat makes ill-feelings intolerable. Where half the people want to be there, and the other half are trying not to flirt with their cousin and vice versa.
6. THE LOUNGE. Where the drinks are expensive, the sensory overload is highly skilled, and the strategies for quick lays are quickly adjusted to suit the current mark.
7. THE CHURCH. Where worship of god is tempted away by boredom, insecurity, and the promise of immortality regardless of present behaviors. Where religion goes to die. Where belief turns into habit and faith removes all doubt.
8. THE TELEVISION. Where the lure of infinite choices is whittled down into the banality of familiarity. Where people go to see the same stories they saw before. Where the possibility of seeing something great is ever-present but always uncertain. Where addicted brains go to die. Where the conscience is salved.
9. THE PLAYGROUND. Where all the excess energy is dissipated in a flurry of excitement and unknown people. Where the danger of a scuffed knee or a quick plummet to the ground is overcome by the desire to have fun. Where the parents go to fade away. Where the children go to become adults.
10. THE NURSING HOME. Of which the less said, the better, because really, if you use Nursing Home as a metaphor for Museum, we already know how you feel: sad, unable to help your loved one, and desperate to wash your hands just before making it to the exit.