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The person who took this photo labeled it “Colors” with the following description: “Spectrum V (Ellsworth Kelly, 1969) + Tourists (2009)”(photo via flickr.com/abdijstraat)

It’s summer in New York and the focus of the city’s art fans shifts from the commercial galleries and nonprofits to museums, as many stage large tourist-friendly shows and turn up the air conditioning during the sweltering months. Visiting the museums I encounter people — often tourists — who discuss or react to art with refreshingly unfiltered opinions about what they are seeing. On a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I overheard some very interesting commentary from the museum goers; commentary that sparked confusion, insight, and humor. The gallery space for whatever reason often lends itself to a different dialogue, one where the visitor feels a necessity, and sometimes a pressure, to respond to the work as if its stillness generates an uncomfortable and awkward silence.

Tourists galore in the Metropolitan Museum’s Great Hall (via flickr.com/esthereggy)

Being on almost every Top 10 list of “Must See” things in New York City, the Met is home to every kind visitor. The Museum welcomes a whopping five million visitors a year. This is not the crowd you will see at the Neue Galerie, or the Whitney Museum of Art, or even the more adventurous visitors of MoMA for that matter.

I don’t want to pick on the tourists and I don’t want to imply that all tourists are ignorant to art but the most interesting and out-of-left-field comments did come from the out of towners, particularly those decked out in white sneakers and Hawaiian-themed tops et al. They certainly add a different flavor to the museum going experience.

Listening to the tourists’ commentary was insightful, in regards to how art and artists are perceived by the masses, so I decided to write it down — and add some commentary. Thinking about it I realized that they tend to have a very 19th century outlook on what constitutes a work of art (usually something resembling paint on canvas hung on a wall). Sure their reactions to art can be naïve but they are also genuine. Part of me envies them for being able to look at art with fresh eyes — a blank slate. The world is a different place from that standpoint and informs my own ideas about art.

Robert Rauschenberg, “Canyon” (1959) (click to enlarge)

For my experiment, I chose to station my wanderings to the Modern Art department, because even though this time period is closer to us, and in my opinion more relatable, it is often the hardest kind of art to “get,” as it were.

On a crowded Friday, walking around the mezzanine level of the Modern Art wing I noticed the you-are-too-close alarms were going off every other minute. But the problem was, that one, no one noticed the noise — they probably attributed it to some annoying ringtone — and two, none of the guests realized that they were stepping too close to works of art, or that they were even art for that matter!

One woman was leaning on one of Rachel Whiteread’s white “Untitled (Pair)” (1999). Maybe confusing them for some high-class contemporary New York thingamajig made for leaning?

For example, Mother and daughter duo walk up to Rauschenberg’s Canyon (1959), daughter takes one look at it, shoots mother a look of shock and anger and storms off.

Mother:

Aw, well honey, I’m sure he didn’t kill the bird himself! (She squints at the painting) But … you never know …

Animal cruelty! A component of the work that I never realized! I know that the eagle was collected from a trash heap by a friend of the artist, but how are they supposed to know this? Are they even supposed to know anything? Let the art speak for itself! Right? The woman was clearly already very wary of the artist. You know those artist types, if anyone is going to kill an animal and lacquer him up it would be an artist! Freak.

A view of the “Masterpieces of French Art Deco” show at the Metropolitan Museum.

“Is this art?”

… or did you just walk into Ikea?

Wassily Kandinsky, “The Garden of Love (Improvisation Number 27)” (1912)

“Kandinsky? He did like, crazy amounts of art right?”

“Yeah, but, like, this is his early stuff, I think … but yeah, like so much art. What I wanna know is how he found the time to like, do it all, you know? Like geez.”

What was it, like his job or something?

Francis Bacon, “Head I” (1947-48)

“Here is that Bacon fellow. The one who took the painting of the Pope and mutilated it or something … changed it.”

“What a sick, sick man.”

Bacon is probably doing cartwheels in his grave!

Bridget Riley, “Blaze 1” (1962)

“That right there looks a mess. I’m sure he had some cleaning up to do after.”

“Which floor has ‘Starry Night’?”

“Wow! This one will throw you for a loop!”

“Yeah, take a look at it, Ron! It’s famous! This one’s famous!”

This comment was in regards to a Bridget Riley painting, but it seems strange that sitting next to this was a Warhol and Lichtenstein and this was the famous, the recognizable one. Maybe they have a copy of this on the coffee table at home? And good luck finding “Starry Night.”

Yves Tanguy, “Fantastic Construction” (1949)

“Oh my gosh, Dali! I love him. Oh wait. Tanguy? Isn’t this copycatting? Is that allowed?”

I wonder what they’d think of Sherry Levine … or Richard Prince … or Mike Bidlo … or, hell, a lot of people.

*   *   *

Homepage image via flickr.com/onlyforward

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Holly Gover

Holly is in love with art history and is happily returning to New York after a year in Paris. She writes and spends way too much time listening to the Ricky Gervais Show.

21 replies on “Overheard at the Met”

  1. and . . . .. .
    sometimes we all just say stupid stuff . . .. . . .
    so don’t take it too seriously.
    But yes, this does add insight.

  2. I found the article interesting and orginal… quite refreshing and fun to read.

    1. You might be new here, so I wanted to let you know that we normally don’t approve anonymous comments so please provide your name and email next time … and thanks for stopping by.

  3. I don’t find it insightful at all. The commentary on the tourist’s comments leans more towards the simply snarky rather than the insightful or witty. Why didn’t you take yourself over to those tourists, since you “get it,” and kindly explain it to them? Or does it take years of art school brainwashing to “get it”? Would you even be able to explain it to them? Ask yourself that, would you even be able to, if you tried? And if you couldn’t, would the problem be with you, or with them? (I’m now stealthily pointing my finger at you). But instead of trying, you decided to write something snarky for your fellow snarks to enjoy. Go back and try again.

  4. Hm, interesting response, but I think you completely missed the point of this article. Rather than assume attack on these unfamiliar tourists, the writer simply pointed out the various view points one looks at art; she was not condemning them. Further, the writer makes a wonderful point on how seeing these pieces with ‘fresh eyes – a blank slate’ gives way to truthful, genuine reactions that should encourage even those who, as you say ‘get it’, to always view art in different light. I think your response was short sighted and I encourage you to re-read this article. Cheers

  5. Well Brittany, how does this bit: “Is this art?” … or did you just walk into Ikea?
    pan out to simply pointing out the different views people had? That is more than
    just pointing out the different views people had. That is adding derision right on top of it. Take your art school brainwashed-blinders off.

    I am trying to help Ms. Gover become something more than a wannabe hipster pipsqueak.

    1. I think your anger and “offer to help” is a little misplaced.

      I say stuff like that all the time but have enough of a sense of humor to laugh at myself and others like me who don’t understand a lot of the art we see in museums.

  6. The piece was meant to be light hearted, and yes, a little snarky. It is an issue that could be delved into deeper, but that was not my intention here.

    Thank you for your concern Tyler! But don’t you worry about me.

  7. Holly:

    Please continue to pen your light hearted and slightly snarky posts as it’s obvious that the art scene needs that despite the occasional dysfunctional commenter.

    Best

  8. @art trip: The Art Scene needs for the people who supposedly “get it” to be snarky at those who don’t? And you call me dysfunctional? Right.

    @Veken: Ok, so since you can laugh at yourself it makes it all right to laugh at others? Talk about Justification. Practice just laughing at yourself. That would be a lot better.

    @Holly: And how is being snarky at those who don’t “get it” supposed to be of value in any way? Too bad you don’t “get” that it isn’t. As I said, you wrote a snarky article for your snarky friends to enjoy. That is all it is.

    Again, could you explain it to them if you tried? No? I don’t think you could,
    and I don’t think you are even willing to think about that. You are not at all justified in laughing at them. What a shame that you don’t have any more depth than this.
    What an even bigger shame this attitude is endemic in the art “community.”

    It’s a real issue: “Modern” art does not communicate itself ot a large chunk of the population, the “uninitiated.” Why don’t you write something real about that?
    Do you have the depth? Yeah, didn’t think so.

  9. @Hrag: It’s ok that you feel that way. I wanted to add that what would really be interesting would be to ask: How can modern art communicate itself better to people?
    And then write from that perspective.

    I doubt that is going to happen here, but I hope that somewhere, someday, somebody does it.

  10. Like I said Tyler, I tackled this topic in a very shallow way (on purpose!) and it is a very interesting topic, but this specific article was not the venue for the in depth discussion. I would love to address the issue someday.

  11. (Found this looking for an image of Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum V, apologies for superlate commenting) Today, wandering through the Met (part for the air conditioning, mostly because wtf is the point of living in this city if you can’t whoosh beneath a Calder on a hot day trying to make it go Wheeee!) heard two teenage girls going through the Greek & Roman sculpture exhibit stopping at every half-clothed hunk of male-marble saying

    “Is this the David?”
    *examining plaque* “This is, ugh, no, it’s Hercules. Is THIS the David?”

    @Florence, you’re doing it wrong.

  12. I feel that this article, although snarky in places, does indeed highlight rather comically the views of people in museums. I have often found myself saying stuff like this in galleries, regardless of my art education. I like the way the article mocks what people are saying and although the Ikea comment is relatively supercilious I think that to take the article based on some snark responses would be an error. It is great to hear people’s spontaneous reactions, and I consequently appreciate this article. Thank you.

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