Artful Amusement

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?

John Himmelfarb PV 19 Puerto Vallarta Series_Trucks 2013I 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 the appropriate process is 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 as well as providing not to mention pleasure? Doesn’t it recall memories, make us grin, lift us up?

John Himmelfarb 2013 A Moment of Silence

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. I told him yes, just go, give our name, and 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. At the time, on my “off hours,” these were my soul-filling rest stops. My sons have also been surrounded by my own little collection and a sizable art 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, educating oneself (even lightly) and training the eye — all reasonably satisfied via the Internet.

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.  That made it 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. We looked. We experienced. We enjoyed.

John Himmelfarb Daemon 2009 smallAs for encouraging interest in contemporary art, or modern art, or more classical periods that are, for some, easier to understand?

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.

John Himmelfarb Down By The River 2004 Acrylic on Canvas

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


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  1. batticus says

    I recently had a good chat with our large metropolitan art gallery wondering why I didn’t renew my out-of-town membership, I had to let them know that their memberships were optimized for couples and if you are single like me, it is cheaper to attend 2-3 exhibitions per year and pay full admission price (which I do, they have had some great exhibitions). When I travel, I always check for art galleries by asking around; I once asked a local about the closest gallery (turned out to be the Clark in New York State) and I got to see “The Gleaners” and other beautiful impressionist paintings on loan from the Orsay, what wonderful luck! Another trip to Pittsburgh where my hotel was a block away from the Andy Warhol museum. You just have to ask, you never know what will turn up.

  2. Leslie in Portland, Oregon says

    Speaking of intrusive overload: as I am trying to focus on your insightful, articulate essay and the Himmelfarb pieces accompanying it, I am repeatedly interrupted by an animated ad for “World Warcraft” and its come-on “Play Free” running in the sidebar.

    Obnoxious, irritating, another aspect of our culture’s drive to make money out of every experience a person can have. I think I’ll make a little curtain that I can hang over that side of my computer’s screen…

    In my opinion, this is one of your best and most important posts. If you allow, I’m going to save it and quote from it as I participate in the endless battle to fund art programs in our schools. Your comments and the quotation on what art offers us and on the experiencing of art are absolutely spot on! I hope you continue to voice your point of view, at every opportunity!

    • D. A. Wolf says

      I’m so sorry about the intrusiveness, Leslie. I use an excellent ad service and hope this doesn’t happen often. Daily Plate of Crazy is a labor of love, and I want it to be a wonderful experience for the reader…

      Thank you for the kind remarks on my writing and in particular, the piece on viewing art, and John Himmelfarb’s work. I miss my days as an art reviewer (it’s almost impossible to make a living writing about art; for that matter, it’s almost impossible to make a living writing!). Occasionally, I’m compelled to dip back into this long-standing passion. I would be delighted to know that you used any words I might offer as you fight the good fight.

      I find myself wondering at times about the years when I bought art supplies and ran the occasional art project in my kids’ elementary school, hoping I might get through to even one child who would manage not to lose the natural creativity. For that matter, to retain the child’s awe and open vision is a gift – if we can manage to nurture it, or revive it. And do explore Mr. Himmelfarb’s site. He’s fascinated by so many things and works in so many mediums. I’ve seen his work in person. It’s witty and intelligent and brilliantly colored. I’m obviously a fan, and thrilled he allowed me to include his images.

  3. says

    Love this piece, D.A. I am ruminating a post on art these last few days and was thinking as I read this that I’ll have to link to this. You bring up so many salient points on the benefits and richness of art in our lives. I have traveled far to see particular pieces in museums far from home. I’ve been in their thrall, as well. One of my favorite memories was being on a ski trip in Switzerland with my son and daughter and traveling by train one day with my then 19 year old son, who WANTED to visit a couple art museums in Geneva. He couldn’t get enough. Who knew? My football, basketball, fishing, skiing son – had picked up a bit of his mother’s love of art. Made my day. Made my trip. So I “get” your being “startled” and delighted at a son’s bend toward it. And thank you, by the way, for the lovely pieces you’ve shared here – the brief viewing was enjoyable this morning.

    • D. A. Wolf says

      Delighted you feel the same way, Barbara. (And so glad you enjoyed John Himmelfarb’s work.)

      While it’s certainly not like seeing the “real thing,” we can view a great deal on the Internet, read about it on our own time, and whet our appetites for seeing art in person. I wish more people would “play” on art-related sites. One of my former favorites, Artnet, has changed their format (unfortunately), which used to be very pleasurable to navigate and learn from. Still, you can go to their “artists reference” and type in a name, or simply select a letter and wander and see what you like.

      For example, some of Philip Guston’s witty works share kinship with Mr. Himmelfarb’s. I can search on Guston and see the results – images, exhibitions, etc.

      Then again, we can “Google,” can’t we. :)

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