Essays

Art Beyond the Museum

MET Outside
The stairs leading to the front doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo via new-york-tourism.com)

Approaching the Museum

MET, Great Hall
The Metropolitan Museum's entrance hall (Photo via NewYorkTravelPlanning.com)

Arts institutions often tell us to expect great things from what they house. Take the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for (an extreme) example. As you approach it on Fifth Ave, the first thing you see is a monumental stair case leading up to huge doorways flanked by towering columns.

If you make it up the two dozen steps, past the columns, doors, and security, you enter a vast breathtaking atrium. Crisp air and a bustling public give you the energy you need to survive the final ascent to Art. You buy your ticket, drop your stuff off at the coat check, and head for the grand stairway, flanked by stern, imposing columns. Light pours from above and a saintly masterpiece awaits you at the top.

These various architectural elements convey to the visitor that what is inside is important. Just as a cathedral’s towering spire draws the eye heavenward, so the marble stairs lead the visitor to a beyond whose clean, often white, walls flush the soul of distracting impurities, prepping it for the imprint of a holy vision. The museum, like a bodyguard, basks in and enhances the rays of importance exuded by the things it protects.

Exalting Stairs
The Metropolitan Museum's central staircase (Photo via bridgeandtunnelclub.com)

The Museum’s Mood

When you are finally face-to-face with an artwork, you should be in a certain mood. Subtle awe mixed with tinges of curiosity and overflowing with reverence. This mood will often be sustained by the tall, flush white walls, simple flooring, and boxy rooms with plenty of light. Hushed speech echoes faintly throughout. A meditative calm soothes a soul raised to such heights. The museum sets the mood; its architectural monuments to universality drain you in preparation for the heavenly ceremony. You’re ready to receive what you’re promised.

You are promised Art, and that is what you get in droves. Works line wall after freshly painted wall, works from different eras and styles, of various philosophies, schools, and sensibilities. Accompanying each piece is a superficial note on its origin and significance. The mind is quickly muddled with conflicting ideas and opposed moods. Overwhelmed by the clutter, and pressured by the architecture’s demand that you be aesthetically exalted, you quickly read the note, glance at the work, and, if you aren’t distracted by another artwork, confirm that the various features of the work mentioned in the note are, indeed, features of the work. The note says the painting is important, but it does nothing for you, and, well, there’s hundreds more down the line. You snap a hasty photo and move on. That photograph says little more than “I was here” — a kind of passive-aggressive graffiti emerging from a boredom-bred impulse to react against an oppressive system. What else is one to do in the face of inevitable disappointment, in the grip of spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic underachievement? One must, after all, achieve something!

From the Museum to the Street

I document the museum-induced frenzy of art-photography, which is international in scope. (Left) Mao at the Met; (Right) Mao at Berlin's Hamburger-Bahnhof Museum. The NY Times recently discussed the phenomenon of people obsessively snapping photos at museums. Click on photo for the article. (Photos by the author)

This is not a new problem. French poet Paul Valéry lamented the museum’s effect on the experience of art. In “Le problème des musées,” he complains about the museum’s clutter and decontextualization of art. The clutter induces a reigning “cold confusion.” Bold masterpieces outshine smaller neighbors that also have a strong claim to appreciation. As one observes a dark and overbearing Titian, one cannot get that simple yet striking Morandi out of one’s mind. The clutter induces a frenzied state of overstimulation and before long you feel like you’ve been online for three hours clicking link after link, or like you’ve been trying to decide which deodorant among the thousands to buy: this one smells nice; oh, but this one is cheaper; yet this one is more environmentally sound; and, well, I usually get this one. How did you end up on a website that sells glamour posters from the ‘80s?  Why are you staring blankly at a Cézanne, glancing at the information card, then at the Cézanne, then back the card? Why are you taking a photo of something that you failed to live up to? As Adorno puts it in “Valéry Proust Museum,” “One does not know why one has come — in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfillment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention. Fatigue and barbarism converge.” And, alas, one never really finds that holy place so promised by the columns, stairs, and the $20 admission fee.

A different response, championed my Marcel Proust, is to ignore the art’s demands. Forget the information cards, the tourist guides, the artist’s intentions, and the historical context. Art becomes the sounding board of subjectivity. Instead of battling the fatigued disappointment and dejection, Proust changes the standards of viewing. He makes the paintings his own, illustrations of his life, notes to and from friends. It takes an unusually committed and resilient perspectivalist to make it past the architectural monuments to Universality with a firm sense of one’s individuality. But if anyone could do it, surely Proust could.

Few of us are Proust. One solution would be to respect and cultivate that graffiti-approved impulse to tag museum art with your digital camera: explore and promote street art, which largely avoids these problems. There is no museum to set the mood. By taking art out of the museum or gallery and putting it on the street one solves the clutter problem (barring certain oddities like the Candy Factory which attempt to reinvent it). If you want information about a piece in the street you must seek it out. It’s not waiting there for your wandering eye. The normal viewer knows nothing about the artist’s intentions or the context of production, and when so many of the works are anonymous those intentions might be practically inaccessible. One is often forced into Proustian perspectivalism. Make of it what you will, it’s yours to love in your own way. And take a decent photo. It might be gone tomorrow.

Perspectives on Post-Museum Art

It is easy to underestimate the extent to which we project our views and values into the works we find on the streets. And it is easy to overlook the fact that very different views can be projected. In a previous article I offered a (particularly pro-street art) reading of the late “Hell, No!” stencil at Bowery and Prince. But a person with different values might naturally see that black (rainbowless) stencil as anti-gay propaganda that rejects such a prominent public display of a gay pride symbol. In fact, I once heard a rumor that homophobic religious zealots protested Rondinone’s artwork with large signs exactly like the small “Hell, No!” stencil, which raises suspicions about the true origin of the little artwork.

Elbow Toe, Health Care
Elbow Toe, "I Need Health Care," (2009) (Photo via Jake Dobkin)

I imagine most of us who saw Elbow Toe’s recent comment on health care reform read it as an approval of reform. But the piece lends itself to alternative, totally contrary, readings. By making a spider say she needs healthcare, one might think that the artist is implying that it’s absurd to think that everyone needs health insurance, or that it is the first step on a slippery slope to healthcare for dogs and cats (or Wilbur). Another reading might be this: that the claims of the underprivileged (the spiders) to affordable healthcare are totally unwarranted, as unwarranted as a real spider’s claim to need healthcare. The Right can have as much fun with this piece as the Left.

In a time when it seems impossible to fix the obviously broken health care system and pro-gay legislation is shot down by any coward with a political sling shot, we need these messages to ring loud and clear. Political street art that preaches to the dueling choir is just reciting the Book of Revelation.

Herein lies street art’s predicament. Where art is freely enjoyed — free to view, free from interpretive constraint, free from the institutions of preservation and appreciation — it is also freely abused, not only by viewers but also by artists themselves. How many “street artworks” have you seen that obviously have infinitely more meaning to whoever produced them (or perhaps to the artist’s close circle of friends) than they could possibly have to anyone else? Is that art or a diary entry posing as art? Must post-museum art purchase its freedom at the price of interpretive uncertainty and critical and artistic license? If so, I might think twice before venturing beyond the museum.

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