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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.

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We all know that in the contemporary arts, the former labels for disciplines are no longer valid.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 "How Art Became Irrelevant: A chronological survey of the demise of art." The Professor of Art at Williams College asserts that museums have “gone from offering objects to offering an experience.” Even going so far as to claim when it occurred – with the King Tut exhibit at the Met in 1978. Further arguing that “this is not good for art. The art world can survive anything from the public — hostility, ignorance, even fanatical prudishness — but the art world cannot survive an indifferent public.” Lewis even traces this indifference when he says it was:

20 years after The Treasures of Tutankhamun, the Guggenheim did The Art of the Motorcycle. And it was equally thrilling, equally successful, but it tells us that our society can no longer distinguish — effectively distinguish — between a Harley-Davidson Sportster and a 3,000-year-old golden mask from Egyptian New Kingdom, can't make a qualitative judgment about intrinsic value. So, the museum seemed to be more and more successful, but there's been a little bit of a cultural bait-and-switch that's going on behind the doors of many.

Lewis is essentially saying that popular culture has found its way into museums, and that that effort erodes the value of art, and the credibility of museums as places. Much like what Leysen stated in her speech about the blurring of lines.

Maybe Michael J. Lewis is right when he says it’s about the experience, not the art anymore. Perhaps my experiences only add fuel to that argument. While it is important that Lewis and Leysen point out that the art being shown in museums is tailored more towards spectators rather than critics, and that museums are having a popularity boom because of this, they’re missing the another part of their argument.

What is also important is the accessibility of the art. Opening it to the public the way museums do is equal to greater education. It’s a chance to expand our world, pleasing or not. I didn’t find the subject matter of Notkin’s work pleasing, but I did find the reveal and the act of being at the museum to be so. Popularity dilutes, but it also expands reach. Art cannot and should not hide away; and like Cruz said, art should comfort and disturb, depending on the audience.

This past Winter, I flew across the country to spend time with a guy I knew online and had developed feelings for. (Crazy, right? I’m that guy apparently.) One of the things we did was to spend several hours in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The museum seemed like something fun we could do, and talk about later. The museum itself is a breathtaking and sprawling modern building – a pristine time-capsule of a place with a beautiful array of art. Unlike my experience in the Portland Art Museum, I couldn’t help but talk. To be with him. To be happy. To hold hands, to giggle like a fool wanting to give in to the moment. To let my feelings spill and polish the floor.

There’s a room full of Monet’s, gilded with a silvery damask wallpaper for all the paintings. I am still filled with a clear image of the beauty of the room yet I don’t remember any particular work that I saw. I just remember being with him, gilded. What I do know for certain, is that I haven’t been in enough museums yet to satisfy my curiosity for art. And I haven’t been in love enough inside of them. I still need both.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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