Do you go to museums? To art galleries? Do you expect to be entertained – as if you were at a movie or a theme park?
I haven’t attended an exhibition in some time, much less wandered through an intriguing space, be it a gallery or museum. I’ll offer my usual excuse – no time – but I find it’s a poor one, especially in this circumstance.
If I believe in supporting the arts – and I do – then I need to act on that conviction by seeing art. More importantly, if I believe art is healing, inspiring, consoling, energizing – why wouldn’t I want to partake?
The visual arts provide me a meditative space – stress relief, if you will – that I find in few other activities. At times it’s pure (easy) viewing pleasure. At others, I’m afforded intellectual challenge along with an enjoyable experience.
And I don’t expect it to be explicitly “interactive.”
Can We Open Our Eyes?
The New York Times tackles the issue of art as amusement park – or rather – the ways in which our museums are compelled to “activate” their exhibition spaces. In “High Culture Goes Hands-On,” it’s clear to see how our societal slide into “busyness” over thoughtfulness is expressed in our cultural endeavors.
Judith Dobrzynski writes:
… cultural institutions are changing, too, offering more of the kinds of participatory experiences available almost everywhere else. Playwrights now turn theatergoers into participants or let them choose the ending. Botanical gardens are adding skywalks that let visitors traipse through treetops. Museums stage sleepovers in the galleries and dance parties in huge atriums…
Is there anything wrong in this? I think some of it sounds like fun, don’t you? Why not transform some portion of our highbrow hallowed halls into happenings? But note… I said… some portion.
Busy? Bothered? Bombarded?
Whether we take the Great Adventures approach to acquainting ourselves with abstract expressionism or some more conventional method, I’d say it’s a matter of degree. And that’s the dilemma – when is the entertainment factor going too far? When does it hamper rather than enhance the agreeably solitary and leisurely experience of viewing art?
And so we bump into our “busyness” quandary – our need to schedule, to score, to check off our accomplishments without necessarily finding meaning or pleasure in them.
Isn’t this tendency already prevalent in too many areas of American life?
Are we so accustomed to going-going-gone that we don’t know when to say stop, or for that matter – not this, not here, not in this space? Aren’t we bombarded by enough interactive venues as it is, and consequently under-engaged in what is soothing, private, and possibly more profoundly felt?
We’re so invested in staying (seemingly) productive, we schedule and scurry and slide along, convinced we’re “experiencing” and equating that with a big Thumbs Up. But it seems to me that as we do so, we’re thinking less, we’re feeling less, we’re absorbing and retaining less – or certainly less thoroughly, less intensely, less viscerally – as if without the “doing” we’re not certain of our “being.”
Where is the delight that we can hang onto? Where is the savoring?
Why We Need Art: Humanizing, Healing
Art is humanizing and connective. Doesn’t it help us heal, not to mention provide pleasure? Doesn’t it recall memories, make us grin, lift us up?
In the wake of my most painful moments, art has always been a source of extraordinary comfort. I could lose myself in color and form, the texture and movement of layers of paint, settling into a place where no words were needed – at least for a short time. I could forget my troubles, and my distress was lightened.
When possible, as solace or celebration, I view the real thing: modern and contemporary masterpieces displayed in my local museum, and occasionally elsewhere. When this isn’t an option, I rely on books or the Internet – not quite the same effect of course, but wondrous all the same.
Doubting the positive impacts of art on emotions? Consider this: “Art Can Be Good For Mental Health” by Michael Friedman. LMSW. He writes:
Art can help a person reach into largely unconscious parts of the mind and experience dimensions of self otherwise buried and voiceless. It can also help a person get a handle on emotions that are, to borrow a word from T.S. Eliot, “undisciplined,” and therefore inarticulate. Through the arts people can find voices to express dimensions of self usually left in silence. And through art, people can shape their own identity. Art is not just self-expression; it is also self-creation.
Has “Museum” Become a Dirty Word?
A jaunt to the art museum?
It used to be a privilege and a pleasure. These days it seems like a dirty word – a “must do” on the checklist of items when you tour a foreign city or visit a friend across the country.
I remember being startled a few years ago when my teenager asked if our family membership to the art museum was current. He wanted to attend an exhibition with a friend, and naturally, I was delighted and told him yes, just go, give our name, pick up two tickets.
But I kick myself that I didn’t bring my children to museums more often, though they frequently joined me in galleries long before I began reviewing art, simply because on my “off hours” these were my soul-filling rest stops. They’ve also been surrounded by my own little collection and a sizable library, so they are, at the very least, visually aware.
And no, a collection doesn’t require a fat wallet (though it doesn’t hurt); it only requires curiosity, and now the Internet, educating oneself (even lightly) and training the eye.
How to Interest People in Contemporary Art
As a child I visited Boston’s many art museums, and also the Science Museum, which was more hands on than most, and of course, I loved it. But it was the exception at the time, not the rule and therefore, a memorable experience for its distinctiveness. As for the art museums, I would look and absorb, occasionally my mother might explain something, but generally, we needed few words and it was lovely.
What if we ask the viewer what he or she sees? What if we encourage relating emotions to our impressions of art? What if we provide a small amount of information as needed – to guide the viewer in appreciating color and line, composition and materials, and the artist’s process?
What if we propose that it’s okay to smile, to laugh, to enjoy the wit in the artist’s viewpoint? What if we open doors to creativity and interpretation just enough to allow the individual to experience the art as he or she sees fit? What if then, and only then, we suggest explanations of an artist’s intention – or sooner, if asked?
And what if we actually funded the arts programs in our schools?
Why We Need Art? It’s Some Kind of Wonderful…
When I’m fortunate enough to visit New York, I hightail it to the Museum of Modern Art where I set myself down in front of a Willem de Kooning, or I pop by a gallery to enjoy the glyphs and gambols of John Himmelfarb.
In San Francisco, I indulge in Richard Diebenkorn or Arshile Gorky. In Paris it’s Georg Baselitz or Paul Klée at Centre Pompidou, or days among the galleries of the Marais for those who push the boundaries of classification like Fred Deux and Michel Macréau.
These are all artists whose works hold me in their thrall – with quiet, with questions, with raw energy and vitality. For me, this is relaxation, amusement, sanctuary. Joy. If you muddle my spaces with “activity” then you ruin the very sacred quality of the experience – viewing and feeling the art itself.
Special thanks to artist, John Himmelfarb, for permission to reproduce his works here. His career spans 40 years of remarkable drawings, prints, paintings, sculpture, murals and installations, held in public and private collections across the US and overseas. Click on the images above to see them at his site with additional details. Please visit the artist at JohnHimmelfarb.com.