“When you go to a museum,” he said, “you look at the painting, observe it, take it in. Then you look down and read the little plaque. Does the picture have meaning before you read the plaque? Does its meaning change because of the plaque?”
I wasn’t happy with this contemplation, thinking about how I consumed art and how that consumption was controlled by small plaques, tour guides, and everything but the art itself. In the context of my class deconstructing post-modernism, this was exactly the sort of uncomfortable feeling my professor wanted to instill. I soon found myself reading the plaque as a separate work when standing at galleries, wondering how my judgement of art worked, wondering if I could appreciate the art for itself without the context. I would wander through, staring at the art, actively ignoring he plaque, not caring about the context.
But often the plaque was a validation for me. That’s a Van Gogh, I’d think before glancing at the small brass trophy as if it were the backside of a Trivial Pursuit card. If I were right, I would get the endorphin rush of winning at Jeopardy; if I were wrong, I’d get the joy of learning and be able to look once more and try to spot why I thought it was Van Gogh instead of Cezanne or whomever. Regardless, no matter how hard I tried, the plaques remained a part of my art world experience.
Yesterday, our camp went to the Denver Museum of Art. I haven’t been there in two years, the last time a camp at which I was working headed there on a field trip. In my previous trip, travelling through the museum with the oldest kids, grades 4-7, allowed me to have fascinating conversations, give them a bit more freedom, and really enjoy the experience. This time, however, I was with 2nd and 3rd graders; this time, I felt as though I was herding cats.