I hate Barnett Newman. Actually, to be specific, I hate Barnett Newman’s work. (And do not get me started on Rothko.) I once sat for fifteen minutes in the Museum of Modern Art glaring at Vir Heroicus Sublimis, muttering and trying to get some meaning, any meaning, out of it. (According to the audio guide, when the painting was first exhibited, critics sniffed that it could have been the work of a housepainter. Later, as Newman began to be more highly regarded on the art scene, critics talked about the painting’s subtlety and nuance. They were right the first time.)
The point is, even though I didn’t understand or even like the work, I made the effort to engage with it. When I go to museums, I try to immerse myself in the experience — to connect with the art, sometimes with the architecture (the Tate Modern and Guggenheim in Bilbao come to mind).
Far too many people seem to feel otherwise. Stand in any museum, and you will see some people who move from room to move, looking at the paintings with a bored expression on their face. I keep wanting to ask them, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
I’ve seen this particularly in museums and with artwork that are “must sees.” Let’s face it, there are paintings or sculptures that everyone thinks they need to see to be cultured. The Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Seurat’s Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte. It’s too easy simply to treat a work as an item to check off of a list. (Even for me, sometimes: I was completely underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa. Although in my defense after I saw it once, I never bothered with it on subsequent visits to the Louvre.) I’ve also seen this at historic sites; when I lived in Northern Virginia, I would visit the Lincoln Memorial, and a disturbingly large number of tourists would walk in, take a picture of Lincoln, and leave.
To be fair, I have seen a lot less of this while viewing special events, such as the one I saw last month at SF MOMA. Edvard Munch is a bit of an acquired taste, perhaps, so the exhibit self-selects for people already interested in his work.
When I was viewing the Gerhard Richter’s Student Nurses at MOMA in New York, A couple walked in, older than me, who read the full description (not only the name but the explanation). After reading it, the man shrugged and they drifted on. I wanted to scream. How could they do that? How could they not even take the time to try to feel what Richter was trying to communicate?
Even Picasso’s Guernica, which reduced a friend and me to tears, got nothing more than simple glances from several people who stopped to view it. (To be fair, most people looking at it seemed to be deep in thought. The painting does that to you.)
My favorite person to go to museums with is the Not-So-Little Drummer Boy, precisely because he is not intimidated by the art. When we visited the Musee d’Orsay, a group of people, myself included, were solemnly intoning about the use of materials in Degas’ Little Dancer. The NSLDB had a different take. “What a brat!” he exclaimed. The entire group grew silent. The NSLDB had broken one of the unwritten rules of important museums — you have to be serious. Nervously, I tried to shush him. “Just look at her,” he continued. “Look at the way she stands! I went to school with girls like her!”
At that point, people chuckled and started talking about the girl. It was as though they had been given permission to really look at the sculpture, and think about its subject, and experience it in a new way.
During that same trip to the Orsay, I saw two women coming out of a Van Gogh exhibit. One woman was exclaiming enthusiastically about the intensity of the sunflowers, how beautiful they all were. Her friend was looking around nervously going, “Shush, we need to be quieter.” (The first woman was not talking loudly, it should be noted.)
I wanted to run up to them and say “No! She’s got it right! The sunflowers are intensely beautiful! Let her be enthusiastic! Don’t make her be serious!”
Because isn’t that what art is all about? About engaging our minds and our imaginations?
And laughing? Laughing in an art museum can get you nasty looks. Once, when I was wandering through the Met in New York and came across a portrait done by Sir Henry Raeburn, I burst into giggles. A husband and wife passing by glared, not even bothering to stop and see what I was laughing at.
I want to know from these people, if art does not give you joy, if it does not capture your heart and your soul, if you can’t be bothered to try and figure out what the art is telling you, why are you in a museum?