Loving a Museum: Does the Art Inside Matter?

Take two steps back and stare. The canvas only tells you what you want to hear. Unfold your arms moments before a hand slips into yours, and you forget what it is you’re looking at. Is this Monet, or Manet? Does it matter?

Take two steps back and stare. The canvas only tells you what you want to hear. Unfold your arms, no one wants to hold your hand, and you forget what it is you’re looking at. Is this Monet, or Manet? Does it matter?

I have this habit of being in love at museums. Well, maybe not being in love, but falling. Who I’m with clouds my judgment of the art, covering the works in tones of sunsets or storms. A few weeks ago, I wrote about an ex visiting me in Portland way back in 2013, and relating that experience to the poet, Mindy Nettifee (whom I adore). When this ex-boyfriend visited, the first thing we did was spend several hours at the Portland Art Museum. Conflicted by his presence, surrounded by art. Both happy to be with him and already preparing for the fallout of his leaving.

Going to the museum seemed like something fun we could do that wouldn’t involve much talking. I spent most of it thinking about our history, ironically, instead of fully appreciating the art around me. One piece I do remember was Richard Notkin’s “The Gift.” I stared at this large smoke and ash colored ceramic frame, not knowing what it was until I took a step back and took a photo. It revealed to me the image of an atomic bomb cloud mushrooming across the piece. It was only when I looked at it through the picture that I saw what hid underneath. The real work.

Frie Leysen

In January 2015, Belgian festival director and curator, Frie Leysen, gave a challenging keynote speech at the Australian Theatre Forum. In it she claimed that, “Art should not please. On the contrary. Art has to show where it hurts in our societies, in our world. We urgently need the courage back to pick up this role of disturbers again.” She also goes on to state:

We all know that in the contemporary arts, the former labels for disciplines are no longer valid. The borders between them have become blurred. In Europe, I see the difference between art, culture and entertainment vanishing. […] But the three are completely different, have different missions, different needs and different logics.

I would also add the same to be true in the United States, that the differences between what is art, what is culture, and what is entertainment are very much blurred. The position of United States Poet Laureate, for example, is a governmental appointment, and not necessarily representative of the American poetry scene. But that’s not to say it isn’t possible for a poet laureate’s role to intersect all three categories.

There’s an oft-used quote by poet Cesar A. Cruz that can sum up Leysen’s speech, when he said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Leysen is astute in that the broad terms of art, culture, and entertainment have different missions, but I would also add that they can overlap. That intersection is necessary. A work of art, such as Notkin’s, can disturb and entertain – like it did for me, when I realized what the image really held. It made me feel like I had solved a puzzle or realized the deeper meaning of the art. The ceramic tiles came alive, and I began to see the small skulls and the traces of war on what moments before were just shades of gray to me. It didn’t become less of an art object or lessen the experience of the museum because I found the reveal of the artwork entertaining.

In a recent NPR interview, Michael J. Lewis discusses an article he’d written for Commentary Magazine titled