Who Watches the Art Watchers?

Yesterday, I read an excellent article by Timothy Aubry for Paper Monument‘s latest issue entitled “How to Behave in an Art Museum.” It may seem simple. Decorum dictates that we treat museums, their contents, and our fellow patrons with respect. And be quiet. In other words, treat every museum as if it were The Frick. I remembered another article, this one by Michael Kimmelman for The New York Times. Both writers are concerned with the idea that part of our motivation for going to museums in the first place is self improvement. Then it seems, follows a tricky dance of what place our own intellects and value on high culture have within the walls of these institutions.

Aubry dissects our culture through the lens of museum-going:

Museums, with their egalitarian educational goals and their obscurely significant high-culture objects, stage a confrontation between America’s democratic pretenses and the invidious struggle for prestige that these pretenses conceal and enable. At a place like MoMA it becomes painfully apparent that class and status ambiguities in America make for a comfortable blanket, but there’s plenty of room for tossing and turning, for kicking and pinching underneath it.

I’ve often tried to come to terms with this war in light of my own goals. There’s the idea that the museum is there to help people, as a public service. But to be a good museum, to be the best public service, a Met or a MoMa has to play the game of prestige one-up-manship. It’s as if a museum were a cultural Wizard of Oz: a  huge public face is one of equality and goodwill, while the man behind the curtain just so happens to be in the top 1% of education and income. If we are truly committed to breaking down the walls between high, low, and middlebrow culture, can we ever get away with treating art as sacred?

I like to think there’s a place for it. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that when I think of art as sacred, I think of humanity and the human condition as sacred. The art object itself – not so much. Aubry’s discussion of the video installation at MoMa adds another layer of complication. With the advent of interactive art, we are encouraged precisely not to think of the works as sacred. By constructing a dichotomy between traditional, walk around and look museum going, and more casual set-ups or interactive art, we are only under that much more pressure to act a certain way.

The Kimmelman article focuses on how we look at art itself, including the age old question, “how long am I supposed to stand in front of this?” The author bemoans the decline of sketching – what he seems to believe is the ultimate proof of “really looking.” Kimmelman’s tone is always a shade pretentious, bless him, but I can’t say I completely disagree with the entire article. Museums are confusing! Many times people feel like it’s something they have to do, and once they get there, they are lost. The problem of how this sought after self improvement is supposed to happen can keep you from seeing what’s right in front of you.

I don’t think we all need to be sketching, or even pausing to linger over every piece in a gallery. Cultural dichotomies and the eyes of fellow patrons aside, museum going should be deeply subjective. My boyfriend once told me that he would rather spend an hour or two in a room with five or six paintings. That way, he could take them in and appreciate them fully. I tend to survey a room and go straight to what draws me in. I like talking about the art. My best museum experiences, though, are the pieces that move me to tears, the ones that leave me speechless. Museums are about self improvement, and we improve ourselves by making the most our of our personal experience. It’s okay to have fun in a museum, even laugh at the art. It’s okay to skip over things you don’t like. And it’s okay to look at a piece and say, “I don’t get it.”

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3 Responses to Who Watches the Art Watchers?

  1. Someone says:

    You may want to take a look at this:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/pinkyshow#p/u/8/gaFbmuEUdwI

    (it’s a webshow about, well about social ideas, and this one is specifically talking about museums as coercive institutions)

  2. SSS says:

    I have had that feeling in museums quite often. Whenever you don’t behave as you are supposed to be behaving in a museum, people look at you inquiringly. How do you have to behave in a museum? As you’ve said, just as you feel. If you feel moved by something, or just love the way that painting dress falls, enjoy it!
    I remember the first time I went to a Povera Art exhibition. You were supposed to interact with the almost built stars that Gilberto Zorio had almost built! Enter inside, give a round, feel the form of the star and think about what it means to you. In other room there were microphones, with little steps so you can sing or say something and be heard all around the museum but nobody did so. When my friends and me came in and started singing Abba’s Waterloo, just for fun and it echoed all around the museum, I could see how people looked embarrased while I was doing what the artist made the piece for. They didn’t even have read the pamphlet they give you in the entrance!
    So yes, I think I have roll everything up, but I went to have lunch and come back and now I have forgotten the main point! See you, and your nice blog!

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