“I could probably draw that,” said a roughly 9-year-old girl to her mother at the Art Institute of Chicago in regards to Arthur Dove’s 1929 abstract work Silver Sun. She probably couldn’t, and even if she could, that’s not really the point.
Galleries and museums are wonderful places. Until you start paying attention to the people that go there as well. Are you being an asshole in a museum? Probably. Don’t worry, I am too.
The Louvre is probably the pinnacle of Western art, the place of cultural relevance to go. It’s also the perfect place to take a new profile pic selfie in front of the Mona Lisa. You definitely look cultured now.
In the same Louvre trip I witnessed tourists herded like cattle into the corrals around the disappointingly small Da Vinci masterpiece, I was making fun of the facial expressions painted into countless classics. I am no better.
Art is a really strange thing. We learn about “masterpieces” in school, making copies of Van Gogh’s bedroom scene in our first grade classrooms, long before we can even understand what they mean. Like any high art, it’s not as accessible as elements of pop culture, but pop culture seems to have eclipsed high art more than ever. Traditional, visual art can be thought of in roughly three ways by folks: there are the classic masterpieces you have to see but know little about, art is boring and/or dumb, or art is really great and interesting. The latter group is shrinking by the day.
On a recent trip to The Art Institute, I started observing the museum goers and their reaction to the artwork. I attended on a Thursday night when the museum is free, bringing in the most people that don’t want to pay to see art. Or maybe it was because I didn’t want to spend any money, because it’s perfectly acceptable to eat out for every meal for last three straight weeks, but the $12 student rate for admission is simply out of my budget.
The Art Institute has a large impressionism collection, which is great because it’s pretty. Art is only allowed to be pretty. Take Mary Cassatt’s The Bath. “I think I have a postcard of that one,” I overhear; the pinnacle of an artwork’s success.
The real magic happens in the Modern Wing. Modern and contemporary art are, by nature, incredibly confusing to everyone.
“Is this art? This definitely isn’t art. Wait, is it art? I wish these were chocolate,” said an older woman as she grabbed a strawberry-flavored piece of candy from Felix Gonzalez-Torres Unitled (Portrait of Ross in LA). The piece is heartbreaking – The pile of candy sitting in the corner weighs 175 pounds, the healthy weight of his lover before his diagnosis with AIDS. As viewers take the candy, they represent his deteriorating health and weight loss. But no paint was used, it can’t be art.
Maybe I’m the one being an asshole, smug with the six art history classes I’ve taken in college. At least these folks found their way to the museum. In a year as an editor for a section covering art, a whopping one writer wanted to write about gallery openings. Once I assigned a story on “art events around the city” that translated into five rap shows happening that weekend.
“I hate art,” said David Webber, junior, as I looked over slides for an art history final. “I don’t understand why there’s so much art in graphic design.” He’s getting a graphic design minor, and art is probably ruining his life.
While I’m going to keep laughing at you as you take pictures of American Gothic and post them on Facebook, I think I might just appreciate you. Thanks for actually still caring about art, in some way. Maybe just talk a little bit quieter and stop taking pictures of your children posing in the same poses as the statues.