Monday, March 21, 2011

Reflections on American Museums

One of the interesting issues that comes up when you study art is the issue of museum culture. After all, the art we see (in person) comes to us by way of museum visits... and so the rationale and thinking behind museums impacts what we see, and how we see it. The history of museums in America begins with the formation of vast fortunes in the 19th century, by certain families. The wealth generated was so vast that these families were released from any normal economic concerns, and entered the stratosphere of wealth, where the only question became HOW to spend the money.

These newly super-rich Americans looked to European royalty for examples of what to own and how to live. They built immense mansions on 5th Avenue, reminiscent of palaces. They built summer homes in Newport. They dressed and ate and comported themselves in a generally regal fashion... and in general lived a life that denied the democratic roots of American culture... the became the upper class. Very European. And when it came to art... they turned to the art of the Renaissance as being symbolic of their position in society. Renaissance paintings had served the powers of the church and state in Europe for centuries, and now the super rich Americans wanted to claim that legitimizing influence for themselves.

Thus began the great "looting" of Europe of it's great art treasures by super-rich Americans who were out to prove themselves worthy of their money. Emissaries were sent out to locate, authenticate, and procure artwork. This drove prices to unheard of levels, which propelled the European art dealers, who were only too willing to get rich on American art-materialism. Wealthy Europeans did not have the same view of art. The art they had might have been in their families for generations.... like furniture. It did not have the same connotations that it had to the Americans, and so they did not bid against Americans in buying it.

These facts, and many others explain one basic fact of American art culture... that it is loaded with examples of Renaissance art.... and this art serves as the foundation for most of the great museums in America. We take it for granted that when we go to the museum, we will see paintings of Christ on the cross by some Italian painter from the 15th century. We may not even wonder what such a painting has to do with our culture, our lives, our view of the world. We don't even get that chance, because we don't get to wonder what the point of a museum is... because all we ever see are museums constructed in the same way.

The second major factor in our museum culture, is the 19th century idealism among these super-rich, that art could have a civilizing and cultivating affect on the lower classes. This is (for the most part) a conceit amongst the rich that the lower classes need civilizing at their hands, and that their art collections can do it. The construction of the major American museums flowed from this idealism. They were built as marble palaces to house the collections of the rich, for the betterment of the poor. This "democratic" view of art still prevails everywhere. Every museum justifies itself in terms of bringing art to the masses. I suppose this isn't a problem per se, but it turns into a problem when you step back and consider how it all actually goes down in real life.

In real life, the typical American doesn't really understand art... and doesn't (therefore) really care about art. Art is not taught (in any meaningful way) in most grammar schools or high schools.. or even college.  We are a visually illiterate culture. Our visual culture is not derived from drawings and paintings and sculptures... but by television, the computer, and mass media in general. Mass media images do not challenge the viewer to interact (the way that fine art does)... they require only a passive absorption. Americans become good at (if you can use the word "good" for conditioned response) grasping the message embedded in images (typically meant to convey specific meanings, such as buying a product or accepting something as "sexy"). But Americans are lousy at understanding fine art. One might wonder why fine art museums would even matter to Americans... in as much as they get their fill of the images that matter to them, by simply switching on the TV.

Museums of fine art exist in the American cultural landscape as oddities... the last bastion of things that are supposed to matter, but really don't to most people. Visitors enter the museum the way they enter a church... oddly aware of how out of sync the whole place compared to the rest of the world. Museums themselves are constructed  like churches... large spaces, marble that is cool to the touch... over-sized rooms... everything out of scale to humanity. The art work placed on white walls... no context for the art... no clue as to where and how it was originally meant to be seen in. A total abstraction. Art ripped from it's historical context.. like an angel floating on a cloud... the idealization of a human spirit ripped from it's bodily circumstances and considered as pure spirit. We are meant to kneel and somehow commune with the art. But being visually illiterate, we are left to wander around on sensory overload, scanning the walls like we channel surf the TV.. .waiting for something "interesting" to grab our attention. I suppose that if (in any museum room) there was a flat-panel TV showing ESPN... that many people would gravitate toward that. The other alternative to viewing at the museum, is to conscientiously read all the cards on the wall that explain the art.. or else get the headphone tour and listen to someone with a slightly British accent tell you what's up.

Given the disconnect between fine art (old masters fine art, I should say) and real life... one wonders how museums continue to attract visitors. They do so (of course, through promotion)... and a big part of promoting the museum is by putting on BIG SHOWS that can be promoted well. Certain artists are BIG NAMES. Picasso is obviously one. He is like the Tom Cruise of art, in that his work in a show guarantees people will show up. The same goes for other BIG NAMES... Dali, Wyeth, Pissaro, Van Gogh, etc. One could ask if this is a meaningful artistic experience... but one does not get the chance to ask that... an in fact the point is moot. Americans love spectacle... they love the BIG THING.. they love Superbowls and march madness and the world series and being number one and skimming the best of the best from a list of BEST THINGS that is set before them in the passive TV-Based world we live in. We are more obsessed with consumption than with understanding what we consume. For museums to offer up the same experience dressed as art, is a natural outgrowth of all this.  In a sense, consumption of socially constructed products IS what american culture is about. Materialism in all it's glory.

But...AH... something is lost. The thing that is lost is suggested to us in those moments during our museum visit, when we become bored. When we wander around the big rooms not knowing what to do. Or when we go to the Dali or Picasso  show, and stand in line to get in... and stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowd to see innumerable works of art produced 100 years ago by someone we know little of, from a culture we aren't part of... and we can't even get a good look at it... and even if we could, we are too visually illiterate to make much of the opportunity.

But what are the alternatives? As I said before, this state of affairs really reflects American mentalities... so there is not really an alternative. But we might ask, how could it really be better. I don't know for sure. As an art student, I know that I would rather see a greater variety of works on the walls. I know I don't want to see the same collection on the walls every time I show up. The typical museum has 5 times more stuff in storage than they exhibit. I want to see that stuff too. I want to see more drawings and fewer paintings, since drawings are revealing of many artistic impulses. I would like the art to be easier to get to. I wish that there wasn't just one super large museum, but that there were smaller museums that were scattered in different locations.

I think about the metaphor of the theater in NYC. Of course you have Broadway, with its big time theaters. But you also have lots and lots of smaller theaters off Broadway. So I ask the question... "Is New York a great theater town because it has big theaters, or because it has many small theaters?"  When I go to the Kimmel center, I leave feeling like I just consumed high end architectural luxury, complete with high ticket price, parking garage fee.... and a night-on-the-town, dinner and drinks, dressed-up, upper-middle class consumptive attitude.  I do not like the feeling that culture costs 100 dollars per experience.

Philadelphia is not a theater town and it is not a music town, and building palaces dedicated to music and theater will not change that. When you consider what makes Austin or NYC or Memphis or Chicago music towns... it isn't that they have giant music venus (though they do)... but that the spirit of music is alive and well in all the small venues. That is where the true culture resides.

As Robert Henri says in the opening paragraph of his "The Art Spirit".... "Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums."

So what makes a city an ART city? A great museum? If you put the Metropolitan museum of art in Las Vegas... would that make Vegas the art capital of America? Sadly, I think it might... and it wouldn't take long to put a thousand room hotel over top of it, and slots in the lobby... and take a cab right from the airport.

At any rate, it's interesting. You go to the museum looking for insight into the world... and you may get it.. but maybe not what you expect. You think you're looking out a window.. but in many ways its simply a mirror reflecting a distorted image. The consideration of that image... the consideration of the nature of that distortion... goes a long way to understanding what the hell a museum is really about, or not about.

Despite all that, I do enjoy going. These critical comments flicker on and off in my mind like a neon sign, but that's ok. They keep me sane in these somewhat insane situations.

( 4/13/2010, on the occasion of seeing the Picasso show)

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