Overheard at the Met

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

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

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.


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.

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