Sunday, July 5, 2009

At The Art Museum

Deer Tick--"Art Isn't Real" (mp3)
Art Brut--"Modern Art" (mp3)

One of the ways that I'm still coming to terms with adulthood at age 52 is trying to figure out how to act at an art museum. Well, of course, I know how to behave, but I don't really know how to feel comfortable.
More than anything, I spend most of my time in an art museum doing what is some pre-conceived or developed-over-time notion of what I should be doing. I can't enjoy any moment in there because of the internal monologue going on.

It's like there is another voice inside my head that issues continual directions:

"Okay, step into the room, now carefully double-check to see which way the rest of the people are moving so you don't go against the flow. Wait....wait....don't rush up to the most famous picture. Keep cool. Okay, now. First painting. Stare at it and either tilt your head or nod. Approach it slowly and see what's its title is. Now do you understand the picture? If so, either nod again or mutter 'mmmmm.' Walk on to next picture and repeat. Every third room, find a bench to sit on so that you can stare at one wall and one or more picture on it for a long time."

It isn't that I don't enjoy art. I do. I even think I've seen enough of it and studied it probably not enough to have developed my own internal sense of what is good and bad. I enjoy seeing famous works, I enjoy rediscovering artists that I didn't think I knew but now recognize, I enjoy being able to see a painting from across a room and to think "that's got to be Mary Cassatt," I enjoy exploring (some of) the modern art and trying to find a way to make it work for me.

But because the viewing of art is so public, it seems to require a public response. And my quirk is, when I see a group of people behaving in similar ways publicly as they do in an art museum (not a football game), I immediately think that they are doing something affected and false. But I don't have enough confidence with art to behave the way I want to behave because I don't even know how I want to behave. So for me, it is all an act.

One thing I like to do in an art museum is to get up close to a painting and see how it was made, something no reproduction can ever hope to reveal.

Of course, my museum problem may well be personal. I don't know how to portray awe very well, and especially not in a public way. That same internal voice kicks in and says, "You need to act very overwhelmed. Say 'Wow' at least once. Best not to say anything more, because then everyone will think you are overwhelmed." I certainly feel awed all the time, but it's not a feeling that I am well able to put into either words or actions. It's more of that chill that I feel when I hear a stunning piece of music. I'm comfortable tearing up in the darkness of a movie theater or finishing a book that I don't want to get out of my head and just sitting there alone, mulling over all that it did to me to read it. I think I truly know I'm awed when I get a huge smile on my face as the only outlet for a myriad of positive emotions. But the art museum forces me--no, not really forces--my perceived expectations of an art museum have been socialized into me so that I may stand and stare at something for awhile even though it has not moved me at all.

Yesterday, we spent a couple of hours at the great Art Institute of Chicago, a beautiful museum with a new modern wing, acting that act. It was not an unenjoyable experience. The museum is friendly and open and not-overly monitored. Art museums have made me nervous, like libraries, because the first ones I went to offered some combination of "it's not okay to talk" and "it's not okay to ______," the latter enforced by swooping museum guards focused on preventing even the slightest breath ending up in the wrong place. We got a little of that yesterday, one of our group being cautioned to stay outside of a line, but we also had fun. And we saw a lot of top- notch paintings by artists I know reasonably well--Renoir, Manet, Monet, Henri, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Johns.

We also entered the crazy world of Cy Twombly, the feature of the new modern wing. Twombly has convinced me that physical mixing of painting colors and the selection of two or three of those "new" colors on a canvas really can mean something. That's a step for me.

Who knows? Maybe next time, I'll have that comfortable, confident command, that nodding appreciation, a true mirror to what I'm feeling inside.


Billy said...

Either due to my lack of social grace or my need to express what I'm spo'da keep to myself, I enjoy art museums a lot. And when I say "art museums," I mean the five I've ever visited.

But I've been to The Met thrice and MOMA twice, and those were mind-blowing for me.

If I'm stumped or don't understand why it's hanging on a wall at all, I shake my head in confusion, and if it's just horrid to me, I'll usually say "Huh?" or "Really?" or "Come on," like I'm the Simon Cowell of art critics or something.

When I'm particularly moved, I have to make noise. Where you said you smile, I probably chuckle semi-quietly. Maybe throw in a "hmmph!" If I'm really amazed, I usually laugh a little. And then I'll look to see if anyone is witnessing this amazing thing with me, as if they might appreciate why I'd chuckle or laugh aloud. As if my body were capable of containing such glee!

If I hadn't taken a year-long art history course, I'm sure I'd be even more crass and contemptible.

Bob said...

In one of the most amazing/least impressive feats of my life, my friend and I skipped most of our college art history classes, got really, really stoned the night before the exam, memorized the material for the entire course and aced the exam. I still don't know how that could have happened. It's kind of like when my friend Steve got a strike without ever hitting the head pin--it shouldn't happen!