I’ve Been Framed
Posted on April 29, 2016
Can I see a show of hands? Who here has been to an art museum in any city in the world, stood in line for over an hour–maybe longer if you are expecting to see that blockbuster show? I’m talking about that exhibition, you know the one: The A-listed spectacular depicted on the flamboyant screens that are hanging off the sides of light posts on the city’s streets. Banners of commercialism reminding you, at every traffic light, to get yourself some culture…quickly. Don’t miss out. Everyone is raving about the artist…wait, what’s his name, again?
Maybe, as you catch sight of the mass of humanity outside the museum ahead, you quicken your pace while deliberating the advantages of joining the museum for $185/year and skipping the tedious line even though the museum is in Reykjavik–and it’ll be a cold day in, well, Iceland, before you’re back here again. Time is money and, after all, you’ve traveled all this way. By making the big-shot move to join, you aren’t going to waste time chit chatting with the other tourists–practicing your high-school French with the Québécois couple ahead of you in line. Besides you’re going to enjoy receiving the 85 daily emails you’ll receive for having joined. They will be lovely reminders of your day in this city.
Or, perhaps you’ve reasoned that the line really isn’t that long and besides the rain feels refreshing; the wind in your hair makes you happy you lugged your coat. So, you stay in line and coil yourself around the metal stanchions with the other cued-up suckers. The line stalls because some schmoe only has a Diner’s Club card and the museum doesn’t accept it. You cautiously lean on one of the two crimson velvet ropes mistakenly believing that it’s going to support your tired bones. But, between the gale force wind and your weight…whoops. Say hello to the art lover’s chest behind you.
Any minute now and you’ll be inside the gallery. But, you’re so distracted you hardly appreciate the moment. You’re too preoccupied with checking Google maps for nearby places to eat. Lunchtime already? Do you risk leaving the line and gambling on a lighter afternoon crowd? On the other hand, the museum must have a café on the 5th floor…or is this the art museum your neighbor said had those muffins and strong coffee in those adorable cups? You think so, but the tradeoff is that you’ll sit in the windowless basement for a shot of $4 espresso and a Zeppelin-sized pastry you don’t need. Shoot, now you’ve got to pee, or your spouse does, or it’s your child. Worse yet, it’s your grandchild. And, it’s at this point you begin to doubt your ability to make good choices. Whose idea was this anyway? Not yours, surely…visiting the museum, today, in the rain, before lunch, with a toddler? Wouldn’t it just be wiser to buy the 3-year-old a violin and enroll her in Suzuki music lessons to ensure she gets into Stanford? Art? Who needs it?
Mercifully, you have now arrived at the front of the line, and with some of your dignity still intact, you present the guard with your flimsy ticket. You’ve been instructed to paste the bottom section of that pass onto your jacket. It won’t be until you’re back at your hotel and getting undressed that you realize the sticker is unceremoniously dangling like an untidy piece of orange lint on your collar. But bigger. And, you were trying to not look like a tourist. Busted. The guard takes your offering and warns you to not use your flash and to adjust your Prada backpack, which you bought just for this vacation, from its position on your back to your front. Now, you look like you are carrying an infant all zipped up inside instead of modeling a chic bag containing all your pursey things. Of course, this backpack rearrangement is a clever security measure to ensure that the Water Lilies painting by Monet—the one that is bigger than your car–or any one of the seascape paintings by Turner with the two-hundred-pound gilt frame doesn’t accidentally make it into your bag.
If you planned your art museum trip well, you’ve dashed ahead to the cloak room and checked (or were implored to check) your umbrella, your coat, your earlier purchases of the day, and the leftovers from your Sunday brunch. This frees up your hands to manipulate the audio-tour device you’ve purchased. The narrator’s voice welcomes you to the exhibit, and the guard (they are everywhere) reminds you that you must hang the device around your neck. And, you’d like to. Really, you would. But, because your backpack is now your front bumper, the audio thing hangs around you like a cowbell. Pressing the green arrow, you settle in to hear about how the twelve curators from numerous museums located in a multitude of countries around the world worked night and day to bring to the public for the first time in 65 years scads of pictures from this particular genre of paintings made by this one artist. Not only that; the art works scrupulously were amassed from 49 different institutions and 23 private collections. Silently congratulating yourself on your excellent planning—to be in these hallowed and presumably solemn halls of artistic reverence at this particular time when this specific world-class, never-before-seen-in-one-place exhibition is being offered for such a brief period of time—you suddenly realize you’ve got to pee. Again.
Serpentining through the maze of people who are gathered in front of the pictures which are designated with numbers corresponding to the audio device’s stops, you scoot in and around like a running back maneuvering to the end zone. You scuttle among the motorized wheel chairs, canes, and strollers, and you nearly make it out of that gallery. But not before, your phone rings and the guard asks you to either silence your phone or step outside to take the call. Don’t worry, you tell him. You were just leaving.
I am not an artist, but some of my favorite people are…my son, for example. And, one of the many things I’ve come to recognize about the way I interact with the art I see in museums is that I am a passive observer. It’s not unlike the experience of attending a theatre production or a dance performance except that the former are experienced only once. The exact experience cannot be duplicated. By contrast, one could argue that a painting or a drawing or a sculpture is not transient but static. The only change that occurs is what we bring to it. What pressure! Imagine thinking that you could purchase the musical you just saw? Does the ballet look good above your couch? Is the opera a sound investment for your portfolio?
Certainly, we experience the visual arts in a unique way. That may be why we look at art as if revering it: we stand, or move around the space slowly and deliberately, speaking in hushed tones or not at all. More than likely we are being directed and handled by those same curators who put the show together to give us a sense of accessibility to the work. Just don’t stand too close, please.
Maybe there’s one hard wooden bench to perch on so that you can sit and reflect. In fact, most who are hogging the seat are checking their texts. I spend more time reading the placards mounted adjacent to the art than I do viewing the piece. I don’t want to risk being confused about whose work it is, when it was created, or who owns it. Ironically, I’ll never remember that information anyway. And, I can almost guarantee you, that I won’t understand a word of the pretentious artspeak in that too-tiny print. So, why the fascination with the reading material, I ask myself.
If that audio device I rented is accessorizing my outfit, there’s a high likelihood that some mellifluous voice is suggesting what I should pay particular attention to…the way the chair is placed in the foreground. The big red swath of paint cutting the picture in two. Duh! Tell me something I don’t know. But don’t misunderstand, for all of these verbal cliff notes, I am grateful. I feel as though people are trying to help me. My visual acuity is honed when I have this much authentication. But, ironically, it doesn’t allow me to experience the art.
And, this became apparent to me when I met a young artist recently. Engaging him in conversation about his own show which was being displayed at my son’s gallery, This Friday or Next Friday, he asked ME what I felt when I entered the space. Felt? Didn’t he mean to ask me what was it I saw? It was a challenge for me to avoid responding with a polite and innocuous comment. But here was my chance to think and respond for myself—to pay attention to how that affected what I felt. I described what I observed and how confused I became when looking at his series of installation pieces. That, in turn, made me feel confused and somewhat annoyed because, really, who likes to feel confused and dumb? Having the artist at my side was such a privilege because it allowed me the opportunity to interact with him, of course.
That interaction gave me more insight into his work. He then said to me: Look at this one piece, for example. What you see is just the surface. He asked me if I would be surprised to learn that underneath this print he made there were sheets upon sheets of more paper. Yes, of course, I answered. I’m astonished! I said. If I can’t see them, though, how would I know they exist? Ah, he said, everyone who looks at art brings their own beliefs, experiences, and expectations to what they see. And, I’m pretty sure this young artist was talking about perspective—here, I mean a frame of reference and not necessarily the relationship between two points in space. Although, who really knows?
If I were to go back to that fancy museum with the awesome café and omnipresent guards in some distant city, how can I evoke that same sense of intimacy with the artwork? After all, the artists are mostly dead white guys not young, engaging artists standing by to help heighten the viewer’s experience. In a recent article in the NY Times Arts section, New York City police officers were asked to come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view works of art for the explicit purpose of heightening the cops’ visual acuity. In their case, it was part professional development, part field trip as a surprising number of them had never been to an art museum.
But the point was to view what appeared before them as an exercise in detection and awareness. In fact, the point was the painting itself. And to learn from seeing what is right in front of our noses and attaching a meaningful narrative to what we glean. One might say, ask not what the art can do for you, but what you can do for the art.
The woman running the seminar for the above mentioned police-art experiential experiment showed the officers El Greco’s, “The Purification of the Temple,” which depicts Jesus expelling the moneylenders amid turmoil and mayhem. Whereas I might have looked at the painting and seen an allegorical representation of a biblical story depicted through elongated figures and palettes of color, one cop viewed it and said, “I’d collar the guy in pink because it’s clear he’s causing all the trouble.” That would be Jesus. Different strokes…
Get the picture?